Fuck Yes! The Journey to Badwater

The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.
— Cheryl Strayed
Larry and me at Badwater (~mile 132), 2014.

Larry and me at Badwater (~mile 132), 2014.

I call it the “fuck yes moment,” the moment after everything finally comes together, the moment you realize “that just happened!” We all have these moments: sometimes they follow a perfect first date, a perfect race performance, a job offer you’ve been waiting for (or leaving a job you hated), sometimes one good run after two weeks of staleness, and sometimes after something we’ve secretly (or not so secretly) wished for comes true. It’s the moment when hope is restored and we revel in feelings of possibility. In 2014, my “fuck yes moment” was the day after the Western States lottery. It was a Sunday and, like most Sundays, I spent it running trail with a friend. I will forever remember that run not because we went anywhere out of the ordinary or because anything eventful happened; I’ll remember it because of the way I felt when everything finally came to fruition. That empty placeholder on my race schedule, the one that had, for years, just read “the dream,” was finally going to be filled.

My “fuck yes moment” this year came after receiving an invitation to run the 2016 Badwater 135. My journey to Badwater started three years ago when, during an average Saturday run with my friend Larry, I mentioned that I wanted to run Badwater someday: “But not until I run Western States,” I said. That had to come first. I knew my road ahead was long and I was nowhere near ready. I needed to qualify, I needed more experience volunteering and supporting, and I needed more race experience. Larry revealed that he was submitting his application to Badwater for the following year, and I offered my support if he got in. That following summer, I found myself running behind him along a stretch of pavement in Death Valley, completely in awe by his strength and fortitude.

After Larry’s journey through Death Valley and his incredible finish, we sat on the patio of a small restaurant, eating pizza as we watched runners begin the final 13-mile ascent to Whitney Portal. Larry looked at me and asked: “So, do you still want to run it?” “Now more than ever,” I replied. He smiled the smile he always has when he knows I’ve resolved to do something, the smile that tells me he knows I’ll succeed.

Last December, almost two years after that run when I told Larry I wanted to run Badwater, he sent me a text: “Everything from this point forward is about Badwater,” and so it was. We both took a leap of faith and started training and planning, hoping the stars would align for us. I was sure they would for him, but I wasn’t sure they would for me. There are so many people more experienced and more qualified to run a race like Badwater; I knew the odds were against me, and I told myself if I didn’t get in, I would continue to build my resume and apply again. In the meantime, there would be other races. Still, I had to try. I submitted my application materials the day the application opened, and then I waited, mostly impatiently. On Monday this week, I didn’t sleep. I was too nervous for the email I knew I’d receive the next day, the one that would either make my year or bring disappointment. On Tuesday, I anxiously sat on the edge of my seat at work, waiting, until, finally, I received a message from AdventureCORPS that began with “We regret to inform you…” My stomach dropped and I was overcome with more disappointment than I anticipated. Then I read on: “that you have been accepted to compete in the 2016 STYR Labs Badwater 135…” My hands started to shake. My stomach filled with butterflies. I instantly texted Larry. And, then, “fuck yes!” Fuck yes, I qualified. Fuck yes, I gained the experience I needed. Fuck yes, this goal is coming to fruition. Fuck yes, I'm running Badwater!

To My Running Family: Thank You

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.
— C.S. Lewis

The end of the year inevitably gives one pause. It's a time of reflection, a time to think back on goals we set, steps we took, sacrifices we made, hardships we suffered, and the things we overcame. It's a time to remember those who are no longer in our lives, to think about those who have joined our journeys, and to be thankful for those who continue to be part of our lives as a new year approaches, those who have said "Hey, you're not so bad. Let's do it again next year." Now, more than ever, I want to thank those who have supported me always, but especially throughout this last year. Your encouragement when I doubted myself, shoulders when I cried, calming voices when anxiety took hold, patience when I faltered, and, most of all, love, gave me the strength to accomplish everything I was able to accomplish this year. To those who believed in me when I didn't believe in myself: thank you.

I also want to thank Nuun Hydration, Evolution Healthcare, and Trail Butter for their support through this year. I look forward to working with them, in addition to Pearl Izumi, in 2016. 

While race photos capture hard-earned moments, they don't often capture the journey or the people that helped you reach those moments. To the extent that I have those photos, they are my true year in review. 3,350 miles run. That was a lot of adventure.

Self-Worth Is Not A Number

Three weeks ago, I stopped wearing my fitness tracker. I also stopped keeping a food journal, monitoring my water intake, and weighing myself regularly. All of the technology, the resources, and the apps have a place and have various, often very beneficial, uses. I personally started wearing a fitness tracker and keeping a food journal several years ago to help monitor my expended calories vs. calories consumed so I could refuel and replenish more effectively because doing so was a big issue for me at the time. For others, these resources are helpful in promoting a more active lifestyle and aiding in weight loss. The devices and apps are, however, only effective if the data is being used meaningfully. It doesn't matter if the device tells you how many steps you've taken or how much you've slept or if the app tells you how many calories you've consumed vs burned if you don't use that information in a meaningful way. Good intentions are one thing; deliberate action is another. 

I am generally a healthy person. I'm physically active, I eat well, I drink copious amounts of water, and I sleep as much as an athlete with a full-time profession can.  My diet doesn't vary much from day to day or week to week, although my consumption varies depending on my current level of activity. With that in mind, it occurred to me several weeks ago that the information I was acquiring through these resources was no longer impacting my training, but it was impacting the way I lived my day, my level of stress, and how I viewed myself. In my mind, I had become a number: calories consumed, calories burned, body fat %, mile time. The numbers started to define the way I felt about myself both as an athlete and as an individual on a daily basis, so I stopped looking at them. A seemingly small decision, this was a big shift for me. 

I keep a training log for personal reference, but it is private and, in general, I don't share my training. I don't think it's important. I am not active on social training websites like Strava, DailyMile, and Garmin because I train for myself; I run for myself and for the love of running. That's not to say I don't support healthy competition, but I don't ascribe to competition in training, and I know that if I did, my love for the sport would fade. It's a personal choice and it's one that works for me. It seemed only fitting, then, to make the same decision about the other training resources that were diminishing my love for training. While the numbers have their place, they cease to contribute to a healthy lifestyle when they become consuming. Self-worth should not be defined by mile times, weight, steps per day, hours trained, elevation gained, and rankings. When I can honestly say that these numbers don't affect the way I view myself and my performance as an athlete, maybe I'll look again. 

Life after the Slam

Life is a nightmare that prevents one from sleeping.
— Oscar Wilde

“You need to prepare yourself for how you’re going to feel when this is all over,” Larry said to me as we ran the weekend before Cascade Crest 100. “Prepare myself?” I thought. “I still have to get through two more races. I don’t even known if I’m going to be able to finish!” I let his words go as I lost myself in the continued excitement, preparation, and training that had been my existence since the Western States lottery last December. It’s not that I’m quick to disregard the advice of a friend; I just couldn’t wrap my mind around that piece yet. I needed to focus on the present task if I was ever going to make it.

Nearly six weeks have passed since I finished the Larry Slam. I spent the first two in a post-race combination of haziness and euphoria, completely shocked that I was actually able to do what I set out to do and grateful for the support of the friends and family who helped me reach that point. Then, everything started to resonate. Throughout the entire process, from lottery day through the finish of Pine to Palm, through the travel and the planning, I worked normal days, I trained, I went to family events, and I socialized with friends. For all intents and purposes, I lived a completely normal day-to-day life. And, yet, I didn’t. I lived and breathed the Larry Slam, and every significant life event and emotion that I needed to address (and there were a lot of them) was like an item added to a to-do list that I would deal with later. In the meantime, I would just run a really long way, pack another bag, or look at another aid station chart and not think about it.

Sometime two-three weeks post slam, the flood of emotions began. I was simultaneously excited, disappointed, relieved, sad, and overwhelmed. It was as though I woke up one morning and my brain finally decided to internalize all of the emotions I had cast aside and neglected for the last nine months. It was as though I had been asleep (without actually resting) all year and I finally awoke to find that life around me had changed. So, instead of resting, I ran. I didn’t run far or particularly hard, but I ran. I ran because it was what I knew how to do, because running is the reliable friend that always listens, because it distracted me from relationships, and work, and from the fact that my cat was ill. I got tired and stale. I was irritable and I was apathetic. I lost my appetite. I couldn’t sleep. I loved every second that I spent running, but I was burned out. So I ran more, perpetuating the cycle with which we’ve all become too familiar.

Finally, last weekend, I ran a 50k on some of my favorite trails. It was unplanned and, having come off several consecutive 70-mile training weeks, I knew it wouldn’t be fast. So I resigned myself to running for fun, to enjoying the trails in all of their fall beauty in every cliché way, to spending time with friends, and to not looking at my watch. I was tired, but I had fun. Separated from the racing mentality, I had over 6 hours to think about how I felt and what was important to me, about the things that were happening and what I had neglected. I realized what I was doing to myself and how that was impacting other aspects of my life.

Today is my second consecutive rest day. Those who know me know that this is unprecedented outside the context of intentional race recovery. I don’t plan to cease running (I derive pure joy from the time I spend running), but I do plan on slowing down, on taking a step back, on taking a moment to breathe to allow my mind to process the last 9+ months that flew by when I wasn’t paying attention. I plan to sleep. Because I have big plans for next year, and I want to experience, not cast aside, every single moment.

 

Pine to Palm 100: The Journey's End (or beginning...)

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
— Hemingway

 

Sarah, Jason, Larry, and me at the start (photo by Dana Katz).

Sarah, Jason, Larry, and me at the start (photo by Dana Katz).

As I stood under the dark, star-filled sky, near the big purple Rogue Valley Runners arch, I gave Larry a hug and whispered: “I won’t let you down.”  Nine months of training and racing had come down to this day. Two years ago, I would have given anything for just one 100-mile finish. On this morning, I was attempting my 4th in 11 weeks and 7th total. My ankle still hurt from Cascade Crest 13 days prior and, worn down from a summer of mountain racing, I was tired. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. I knew I would give it my everything (I always do), but I didn’t know if my everything would be enough. I stood behind the arch as the crowd counted down, the 4th countdown I had heard in 11 weeks, and my eyes welled with tears. I was so excited and so grateful to have made it that far. The preceding 9 months flashed through my head like a slideshow of photos. 10...I was being lifted in the chair on lottery day…9...my back injury in February…8…Peterson Ridge Rumble…7…Capitol Peak 50…6…McDonald Forest…5…training camp…4…the overnight runs, the long runs, and the lunch runs...3...the physical therapy, the heat training, the yoga, the early mornings, the naps under my desk...2... Western States, Tahoe Rim Trail, Cascade Crest…1…it was time.

Start to Seattle Bar (~mile 29):

Having run Pine to Palm before, I knew what lie ahead. I had no goals going in other than to stay ahead of the cutoffs and to finish, but I had a feeling that, despite being tired, if my ankle held up, I had a good race in me. I paced myself, not knowing how my body would respond to running two 100s so close together, and ran conservatively. When I summited the climb up Greyback mountain in 2:37, significantly faster than the preceding year, I was elated. I stopped just long enough to take in the breathtaking view before making the descent. I knew I would get to see my crew (Sarah, Larry, and Jason) at Seattle Bar, and I was anxious to get there. Sarah (who also crewed me in 2014) thought this section was a place where I lost time last year, so I wanted to see how quickly I could get there. My soft goal was to arrive between 6:00-6:15.

Jason (the greatest of Power Rangers) rubbing my shoulders as Larry tried to make my iPod work (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Jason (the greatest of Power Rangers) rubbing my shoulders as Larry tried to make my iPod work (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I made the descent down Greyback I was really starting to enjoy the morning. My ankle hurt, but it never seemed to get any worse, so I ran on it with caution and tried not to think about it. It wasn’t long before it started to get warm and, once I reached the start of the gravel road after the first aid station around mile 15, it was hot. The subsequent 14 miles to Seattle Bar are mostly on exposed fire road. The sun beat down as I made my way toward my crew. When I finally turned off on the rolling doubletrack, roughly 2 miles from the aid station, I was incredibly hot and had a list of things in my mind that I wanted to do when I saw my crew, chief among which was changing into a cooler shirt. I started to run faster, excited to see them and happy that I was going to make it there in the time I had predicted. I knew Sarah would be proud. As I started to run faster down a dip in the trail, I became distracted, thinking about popsicles and a shirt change and making Sarah proud, and I didn’t see the large tree branch overhanging the trail. I ran straight into it and it knocked me down. “Idiot!” I thought. My head hurt instantly.

Soon I turned the corner to the Seattle Bar aid station. I had a feeling Sarah would be waiting there for me and there she was, cowbell in hand, cheering me in. I told her I was hot, every bit as hot as when I came out of Duncan Canyon at States, I let her know what I needed, and handed her my vest as I made my way to the aid station to get weighed.

With a long climb ahead of me, we knew I needed to take a few minutes to cool down and refuel. Sarah and Larry loaded my vest and put ice everywhere like they did at States, while Jason (in costume nonetheless) massaged my shoulders. Soon, I was off to make the long climb up Stein Butte. Jason walked me out of the aid station and sponged me off: “I can’t believe I’m fucking back here,” I said, and I made my way toward the climb. I would see them again is ~10-11 miles, which we expected to take 3:30.

Seattle Bar to Squaw Lakes (~mile 39/42):

The climb up Stein Butte is, arguably, the most difficult and sustained of the race. Most runners also typically hit the climb at the hottest part of the day, which makes it even more difficult, and I was no exception. Larry and I have talked about this climb several times. In 2012, I fought the climb. In 2014, I learned that the best approach is to settle into in and accept that it’s just going to take a long time if you don’t want to blow up.

The climb was just as steep and hot as I remembered. Some sections seemed more runnable than they once did but, for the most part, it was a grind. For some reason, I was almost entirely alone for this section and, while I had planned on picking my iPod up at Seattle Bar, it was dead, despite charging it the day before, so I spent the climb alone and without distraction, which made time go by slower. However, albeit long and grueling, the climb up Stein Butte is beautiful singletrack. The September sun shines through and above the trees, and the trail is covered with leaves of every autumn color. I focused on the leaves. The sun beat down on me as I continued to climb. The aid station seemed to get further and further away as my water bottles got less and less full. Soon, I was too hot to think about anything other than the heat and getting to my crew. I was rapidly approaching the way I felt coming out of Duncan Canyon at Western States, and I knew Sarah and Larry would, once again, be able to help cool me down. I just needed to get to them, and so I pushed. 

Despite feeling horrible and overheated, it took me ~3:30 to cover the distance from Seattle Bar to Squaw Lakes, just as we’d anticipated. As I descended to the lake, I saw Jason’s smiling face, waiting to bring me in in his ever-encouraging way. “I’m in a really bad place,” I said, “and I need to figure out how to pull myself out of it.” I felt guilty as soon as I heard myself say it. It was true, but I didn’t want to burden my crew with those feelings. Jason ran with me to the aid station, where I picked up a water bottle and handed off my vest before running the ~3 miles around the lake.

Trying to pull myself together at the lake as Jason tried to calm me down (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Trying to pull myself together at the lake as Jason tried to calm me down (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I ran around the lake, I tried to channel all of the positive feelings I felt at this point in the race last year and be thankful I was so far ahead of my previous time. Still, I fixated on feelings of not being good enough, of being angry with myself for feeling so terrible, of wondering if I’d be able to do this one more time. I reached the other side of the lake where Jason was, again, waiting to bring me to Larry and Sarah. I sat down, put my head in my hands and started to hyperventilate. Sarah pushed food on me (always her answer to my suffering). “You’ve been redlining all day, Des” Sarah said. “Stop!” I nodded my head and tried to stomach some food. The fact was that I didn’t feel like I was redlining. I was, without a doubt, working harder than I normal do, but I knew that was because I was more tired (physically and mentally) than I normally was. I could feel Cascade Crest in my legs and my throbbing ankle. I could feel the weight of the other three races on my shoulders as Jason massaged them. “I have to finish,” I said. “You need to take a few minutes,” Sarah told me. As I sat there, I told Larry I thought I was starting to blister on a toe that was missing a nail. We started to remove my sock, but soon realized that doing so would remove the other taping we'd so carefully applied, so we decided to leave it alone. “It’s fine,” I said. “It only hurts when I run.” With that bit of levity, I was ready to get up and begin the trek to Hanley Gap. Jason walked me out of the aid station: “You made it through the hottest part of the day," he said. "It’s only going to get better.” I knew he was right.

Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap (~mile 50/52):

The stretch from Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap is a long one, but I knew it would be significantly cooler, especially as I made my way into the trees. I left Squaw Lakes running with a guy named Todd, until I started to have GI issues and fell back to deal with them. Though we only ran together for a few miles, I was grateful for the company and started to forget about all of the pressure I felt while I ran around the lake, just enjoying being able share the trail with another runner. By the time I reached Hanley Gap, I was tired, but I had turned my attitude around. I arrived exactly when we expected. I was still on pace.

At Hanley Gap, getting ready to head out into the night (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Hanley Gap, getting ready to head out into the night (photo by Sarah Duncan).

After summiting Squaw Peak and returning to the Hanley Gap aid station, I took a few minutes to change my shirt and refuel. At this point, I was really starting to feel Cascade Crest, not in my legs and lungs, but in my stomach. I was starving to the point of nausea, despite eating every 45 minutes. I refueled, took something for my GI, and grabbed my iPod (which my crew had charged in the time since Squaw Lakes) and headlamp, and I was ready for the dark stretch of fire road that would lead me to Dutchman Peak, where I would finally pick up a pacer.

Hanley Gap to Dutchman Peak (~mile 67):

Because I had such a difficult experience when I ran Pine to Palm in 2012, the race has, in my mind, always been a race to Dutchman Peak. If you can make it to Dutchman Peak before the cutoff, there is no reason, barring an injury, that you shouldn’t be able to finish the race. Despite being well ahead of the cutoffs already, I told myself that my race didn’t start until I reached Dutchman Peak, so, for me, things were just getting started.

The stretch between Hanley Gap and Dutchman Peak consists entirely of fire road that climbs gradually for 15 miles. It is a long, often tedious, dusty trek. I began this stretch in the daylight, but had to turn my headlamp on within a couple of miles. I turned my music up and watched the sunset over the mountains as I settled into the calm of the night and savored the cooler, albeit still warm, temperature. As night fell and runners spread out, I was alone, but, as I glanced around, the bats and the scorpions that filled the trail were, oddly, like familiar friends. Only once did I startle: when a rattlesnake crossed the trail at my feet. I turned my music down , clearly needing to be a little more vigilant.

I reached the base of Dutchman Peak as predicted, and I felt energized to be so far ahead of my time the preceding year. As I crested the hill, I saw Sarah, Larry, and Jason waiting in the dark: “Dutchman Peak, bitches!” I yelled as I approached them. They cheered. I looked at Sarah: “I think there are some people waiting for me to summit this peak before they go to bed, so let’s get it done.” With that, we began the climb up to the aid station, Metallica’s Hero of the Day blaring from the speakers above. I pointed to the lights in the valley to my right: “That’s Ashland, Sarah!” We checked in at the aid station, 20 minutes earlier than I had in 2014 and 3 hours ahead of the cutoff. I was going to finish. We took a few minutes to eat some warm food and then began the descent to Jackson Gap, where Larry and Jason were waiting at the car.

The descent was quick. We reached the car, restocked my vest, and Sarah and I were off to cover the 8-mile stretch to Long John Saddle, where I would pick Larry up for the remainder of the journey to Ashland to close the slam together.

Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle (~mile 74):

Sarah and me at the start line. So thankful to have her to pace me from Dutchman Peak (photo by Larry Stephens).

Sarah and me at the start line. So thankful to have her to pace me from Dutchman Peak (photo by Larry Stephens).

Last year, the stretch from Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle took and exceptionally long time. It’s not an overly difficult section of the course, but it’s a little technical on tired legs. In 2014, having run in forest fire smoke all day, I lost my stomach on this stretch, and never regained my ability to tolerate food. It was all I could do to drink fluids. This year, it was so nice to actually feel good during this section, appreciate the views of Ashland from the dark ridgeline, and enjoy the time on the trail with a good friend. Unfortunately, the GI issues I’d been battling during the day never subsided, so I continued to fight them during this stretch. I had to sit every time I needed to eat, and I soon started to experience fits of burping, which I’d never had before. I was able to run, but it was extremely uncomfortable.

Once again, the stretch from Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle took longer than had anticipated, although I arrived exactly when Larry expected. While at the aid station, my head started to pound from running into the tree earlier in the race, so I took my hat off and adjusted my headlamp. We then tried to do something about the burping and intestinal issues n, but nothing seemed to help, so Larry and I were soon off into the night to cover the final stretch to Ashland. I left Long John Saddle almost two hours earlier than I had the preceding year.

Long John Saddle to Wagner Butte (~mile 85):

The sunrise from Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

The sunrise from Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

On the drive to the race start, I told Larry that I had aspirations of seeing the sunrise from Wagner Butte. In 2014, I reached Wagner Butte at 11:00 a.m., so this was a lofty goal. Larry humored me when I told him, but I knew his first goal was to see me to the finish.

As Larry and I made our way down the fire road to Wagner Butte, I was still so incredibly proud of how far I’d felt I’d come. Last year, this stretch was a death march in every sense. This year, Larry and I were running, talking, and joking like it was any other weekend run. We reached the Wagner Butte aid station around 4:20 a.m. We refueled and I changed my shirt, knowing that the sun would rise soon and I’d be even warmer than I already was.

We began the roughly 5-mile ascent to the summit of Wagner Butte in the pitch black. I knew making it by sunrise would be close, but I was hopeful. As we started to slow down and settle into a steady climb, I started to fall asleep as I hiked. I couldn’t carry on a conversation and I listed as I walked. Finally, Larry put his hands on my shoulders and told me to sit down. “I can’t sit,” I said. “I need to keep moving.” “You can’t sway all over the trail either,” he said. And so I sat against a log and closed my eyes for 2-3 minutes. I then ate a Gu and stood, ready to continue on. Larry talked at me and told me not to respond; he just wanted me to concentrate on moving forward. Then, remembering that when I started to feel sleepy at States Larry encouraged me to start running, I decided to start running, even if I was going uphill. From there on, I was awake.

As we exited the trees onto an open ridgeline, the sun started to rise. We were approaching the scree and the summit of Wagner Butte. “See?” I said. “I told you we’d see the sunrise from Wagner Butte.” Climbing the scree to get my flag was not nearly as difficult as I’d remembered. In fact, it was kind of fun. I could feel Larry’s pride as we reached the top and it gave me strength.

The descent from Wagner Butte is not a pleasant one. Once you run back over the ridgeline, you are then on steep downhill singletrack composed mostly of loose dirt, making it difficult to keep a steady footing, let alone climb over the down logs. As we made this descent, I started to slow. My feet were starting to burn. At one point when I started to run, I tripped over a rock and fell. A stick gouged inside the gash in my knee that I’d gotten early on in the race. I collapsed and silently held my breath, my eyes tightly shut as though holding in the pain. “Hold it together,” Larry said. “Hold it together.”  I took a deep breath, I got up, and we continued on the long descent that felt like it would never end.

At the summit of Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

At the summit of Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

We finally reached the Road 2060 aid station (mile 90) at 9:00 a.m. I handed a volunteer my flag, proof that I had summited the final climb. I knew then that I would finish. I ate some pancakes, which were so very welcome after another day and night of trying to stomach Gu. Once again, Larry and I were off.

Wagner Butte to the Finish (~mile 100.5):

The final 10-mile stretch from Road 2060 to the finish consists largely of fire road. Last year, I death marched the section almost entirely. This year, I swore that would not happen. It didn’t. My feet burned and my stomach hurt. I was simultaneously starving and nauseous. I moaned in pain. Still, I ran, taking only periodic walk breaks. “Okay,” said Larry. “You can walk it in and finish in over 30 hours or you can run and break 30.” In a shaky voice, I moaned through my pain and tears and asserted “I’m not walking it in!" I started to run and I didn’t stop. I was determined to touch down on the pavement of Ashland and finish in under 30 hours. It was everything I could do to keep moving. I wasn’t able to talk. Larry understood. He’d been there. He knew. “You are never going to feel this kind of pain again, Des,” he said. “Embrace it.” I ran harder, moaning in pain, moaning because I was fighting so hard, moaning because it fueled me. 

Larry and me running to the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Larry and me running to the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan).

We finally reached the doubletrack jeep trail that leads into Ashland and saw the smiling faces of Jason and Sarah, who had hiked ~1-2 miles up to run the final stretch with us. I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to tell them about the night. I wanted to tell them about seeing the sunrise from Wagner Butte. I wanted to thank them for being there. All I could do was moan in pain., occasionally spewing profanity. Still, I ran and I ran hard. I touched down on the pavement of Ashland. I have never been so happy to see asphalt. As I descended into town, I ran faster than I did when I hit Placer Field in Auburn. I crossed the finish line in 29:28, a 3:33 course PR. I threw my handheld down on the ground, the lids few off, and water splashed everywhere. I hunched over and buried my face in my hands in complete disbelief that it was over and I had done it. I hugged Larry: “I hate you,” I said. He laughed. “I think that’s fair."

Larry and me at the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Larry and me at the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Writing this race report was difficult for many reasons (it’s hard to write about the same race three times, I’m tired of writing race reports this year, I’m tired), most of all because writing it meant that the Larry Slam was over. It’s hard to describe what goes into 9 months of training and injury prevention and recovery and race preparation. The travel and the pure physical exhaustion, not knowing how I would run one more step, let alone get up for work and function on a day-to-day basis, was physically and mentally draining. I was invested in this goal like no other, and I devoted every minute of every day to it in some capacity. I lived and breathed it. I loved it. It changed me in ways that I cannot describe. Even now, I can’t fully comprehend the journey. I lived an entire life in the span of 11 weeks and learned more about training, racing, friendship, and myself than I will ever be able to put into words. Over 400 miles raced in 4 states, over 165,000 ft. of elevation change, a bajillion Gu consumed, 9 very dear friends as crew/pacers, and the support of a running family bigger than I can enumerate. Larry Slam complete.

Here’s to next year! But, first, some rest.  

Cascade Crest 100: Weathering the Storm

And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.
— Haruki Murakami
Larry and me at the start line (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Larry and me at the start line (photo by Sarah Duncan).

It is no secret that I do not tolerate cold well. Despite spending the better part of my childhood and young adult life in Montana, my body simply shuts down in cold temperatures, and it does not take long. I suffer from Reynaud’s (a condition that causes my appendages to vasoconstrict quickly in order to draw heat to my core), as well as cold urticaria (a significant sensitivity that causes me to break out in hives when exposed to the cold). I have suffered hypothermia three times, two of which led to me not finishing races. As the 10-day forecast for the Washington Cascades started to change from sunny and warm to stormy and cold, my anxiety began to increase. I planned, knowing I’d need to eat more to stay warm, and packed nearly all of the layers I own, knowing I’d need to constantly change clothes. Thankfully, the day before the race, my friend Dennis and I decided we would run together as long as it made sense. Dennis is strong and experienced, and his offer of company helped calm my nerves.

Race morning was cold and breezy, but, ever the optimist, I held out hope that the weather would clear, even as we drove to the start line and it started to rain. I knew that a dry race was too much to ask for (the storm was coming and it was inevitable), but I hoped that the weather might clear enough that I didn’t have to start the race wet. I got my wish. An hour before the race started, the clouds parted and the sun shined through.

The Start to Tacoma Pass (mile ~23):

Dennis and I found each other in the crowd of runners at the start line and, from the first step, we ran together. The sun continued to shine through the clouds and it quickly started to feel warm and humid. Until about 5 miles in, when we crested an exposed hill and the wind picked up again, the weather was dry and calm. My goal was to make it as far as I could before the rain started. That was ~14 miles.

The first 10 miles or so of the course consist of steady climbing. Larry warned me that this climb was deceptively hard and not to overexert myself, so I took my time, treating it like the Escarpment at Western States. Once through that climb, it was steady running to Tacoma Pass, sometimes on fire road and sometimes on singletrack, often above 5,000 ft., where is was so windy and cold that I knew I could not stop moving for too long. It was beautiful and I felt great.

Running in to Tacoma Pass aid station (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

Running in to Tacoma Pass aid station (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

By the time I made the long descent to the Tacoma Pass aid station, I was soaked from the rain, but warming up as the elevation decreased, and I was beyond elated to see my crew (Sarah, Jeremy, and Eric) for the first time. I quickly refueld, changed my shirt, let them know what I would need when I saw them next, and I was off.

Tacoma Pass to Stampede Pass (~mile 33):

From Tacoma Pass, Dennis and I ran together and leap-frogged through Snowshoe aid station (~mile 28) and on to Stampede Pass. Sticking together, even when neither of us felt like talking, was comforting, and the time seemed to fly by. Entering Stampede Pass, I was again thrilled to see the smiling faces of Sarah, Jeremy, and Eric, and was ready to prepare for the night. At TRT100, not having a crew, I got into the habit of going through a mental checklist as I entered each aid station (food, clothes, medical, body temp), so I was ready when I saw them, and knew exactly what I needed. At the aid station, I changed my shirt, bra, confirmed I had my light, grabbed some food, and headed out into the dim forest, just behind Dennis. As I left, Sarah told me that I had about two hours before the storm really hit. She was right; in two hours, the heavens would unleash. 

Stampede Pass to Olallie Meadows (~mile 47):

Due to Cascade Crest’s atypical late start time (10:00 a.m.), the sun started to set at a much earlier point in the race than that to which I’m accustomed, even while running a 28-29-hour pace. By the time I reached the Meadow Mountain aid station (~mile 41), I had to pull my light out of my vest. 

After changing clothes at Stampede Pass (photo by Eric Lubell).

After changing clothes at Stampede Pass (photo by Eric Lubell).

The next ~6 miles to the Olallie Meadows aid station were dark and quiet. I left the aid station ahead of Dennis and, consequently, ran most of those miles entirely alone. The trail soon changed from smooth singletrack to very rocky terrain (similar to what I’m accustomed to seeing in areas of the Columbia River Gorge), and I had to slow my pace significantly to negotiate the rocks in the dark. I continued to eat on schedule and to run as well as I could, but my spirit was waning. I was tired, soaked, and incredibly nervous about navigating the trail, something that usually isn’t a problem for me. I knew, though, that I just needed to get to Olallie Meadows and my crew. I knew Sarah would know what to do, and I knew that Jeremy would be allowed to start pacing me there, provided he was willing to cover a few extra miles (despite pacers being allowed to start at Olallie, we hadn’t planned on him starting until Hyak).

The miles to get to Sarah, Eric, and Jeremy took what seemed like an eternity. By the time I turned the corner and heard the cheering at the aid station, I was severely depleted and in tears. Sarah sat me in a chair and I buried my head in my hands: “I don’t know what’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with my body,” I said as I started to tear up. “You need food,” Sarah said. Sarah and I have logged thousands of miles together and she has been there for me at all but one 100-mile race.  No one knows me better, so when she handed me 1,000 calories in food and told me to eat it all, I did what she said. As I ate, Eric, knowing that my back had hurt since I woke that morning, rubbed my shoulders. Within minutes, I felt like a new person. With a tearstained face, I looked up at Jeremy, who was sympathetically standing over me with a look of concern, and said “I need you. Are you okay with starting now?” Before I could finish my food, Jeremy had left and returned in his running clothes, ready to run.

I changed my shirt once again, finished my food, and stood from the chair a new person. Jeremy gave me a hug and we were off, sailing down the trail like it was any other weekend. 

Olallie Meadows to Hyak (~mile 53):

The distance from Olallie Meadows to Hyak is short, but precarious and unnerving. The first mile or so was fun, runnable singletrack, and then we reached the rope, which we had to use to navigate down an exceptionally steep section of singletrack. It was so ridiculous that all we could do was laugh. Once at the bottom of the rope section, we quickly made our way into the notorious 2.5-mile, abandoned railroad tunnel.

Sarah and Eric, patiently waiting under a tarp (photo by Jeremy Long).

Sarah and Eric, patiently waiting under a tarp (photo by Jeremy Long).

I knew the tunnel was coming and I tried to narrow my thoughts and just think about the other side (Hyak aid station), but it was difficult for me. I struggle with enclosed spaces and the air in the tunnel was so stale and laden with mildew that I started wheezing. A short section mileage wise, but a long one mentally, Jeremy helped me get through by distracting me with stories. At one point, another runner ran past us and suggested we turn our lights off. Reluctantly, I turned mine off, as we moved through the tunnel in complete darkness, appreciating the eeriness, I tried to be present in the moment. 

We reached Hyak aid station (literally the light at the end of the tunnel) in great spirits and ahead of my predicted time (11:00 p.m.). I ate and changed into dry clothes once again. As we left the aid station, a volunteer commented on how skillfully I changed my clothes. At this point in the race, it had become second nature for me. “Lady Gaga has nothing on me today,” I said, and we left the aid station to continue our journey to Kachess Lake, where Sarah would take over pacing.

Hyak to Keechelus Ridge (~mile 60):

My energy was waning a bit as we hit the flat pavement, but I knew that, although a steady climb lie ahead, the terrain would be easy to navigate. From there we had a fun, comfortable run/hike in what had become a light drizzle. That drizzle was short lived. Within a couple miles the heavens unleashed once again and the downpour resumed. At this point we were climbing to Keechelus Ridge and, although moving as well as I could, I was moving slowly uphill. I was getting cold.

It took much longer to get to Keechelus Ridge than I anticipated and, by the time we arrived, I was freezing. I knew I needed to take some time there and get warm if I was ever going to be strong enough to finish.  I sat down among a group of runners huddled around a small propane fire as Jeremy got me soup and helped me put on every layer I was carrying with me.

As I sat there, listening to the wind blow over the ridge and the downpour hit the tent, I heard drop after drop come over the ham radio. The water pooled under our feet and portions of the tent started to sink as water accumulated. I did everything I could to get warm. Still, I was freezing. My anxiety increased. I sat in that chair for what must have been at least 30 minutes, hoping I’d get warm or, better still, that the storm would lighten up. I didn't. It didn’t. Jeremy kneeled next to me and told me we needed to go. “I’m terrified to go out there,” I said. “I’m so afraid of getting that cold again.” As tears welled in my eyes, he stared at me: “I’ve got you,” he said. “I won’t let anything happen to you." I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of trust and confidence in his words, and I stood from the chair. “107 out,” I said. “Be safe, 107,” I heard a volunteer yell back.

Keechelus Ridge to Kachess Lake (~mile 68):

The volunteers told us we had over 6 miles to go to Kachess Lake, further than we’d anticipated. We knew that we needed to take advantage of the downhill ahead of us to increase our body temperatures, and so we ran as consistently and as fast as I could hold pace. I was quickly surprised by how well I was able to move, despite being so cold, and that I was still able to stomach food. My body temperature increased and my spirits lifted. When we reached Kachess Lake aid station, Eric and Sarah were waiting outside the car in the pouring rain. I changed all of my clothes, my socks, and my shoes, ate some soup, and Sarah and I were off for the remainder of the night. We wouldn't see Eric and Jeremy again until after sunrise.     

Kachess Lake to Mineral Creek (~mile 73):

As difficult as the preceding 68 miles had been, I knew that the moat difficult portions of the course lie ahead, as did the worst of the weather. Sarah and I ran ~1 mile of nice trail, feeling relatively dry before we turned down the infamous Trail from Hell. We quickly had to cross a stream that, during dry weather, probably wouldn’t have been any harder than a couple hops across. In the rain, the water level had risen, and the moss-covered boulders were too slippery for me to negotiate on tired legs. After several failed attempts to cross via the rocks, I resigned myself to getting wet once again and forded the stream. My dry socks and shoes, the luxury I had enjoyed for all of a mile, were now drenched again and would be for several more hours.

The Trail from Hell lived up to its name. I was cognizant enough to recognize how much fun it would have been on fresh legs to jump the trees and rocks, to climb the needles, and to slide down the rock faces, but, in the dark and the rain, wearing a poncho, it was all I could do to stay upright. Hours passed. The sun began to rise and, again, it started to feel strange to be where I was in the race at that time of day. It was then that I decided I didn’t like the late start.

As we descended to Mineral Creek aid station, the rain lightened up briefly, and Sarah and I started to warm. We stopped at the aid station to refuel, but forgot that the one and only bag I had dropped, one that had dry layers for both of us was there. We continued on.

 

Jeremy, Sarah, and me climbing from Mineral Creek to the car (photo by Eric Lubell).

Jeremy, Sarah, and me climbing from Mineral Creek to the car (photo by Eric Lubell).

As we climbed the gravel road out of the aid station, we were surprised to see Jeremy walking down from the car. We knew he and Eric would be meeting us above the Mineral Creek aid station, but it didn’t register with either one of us that we had reached that point. I don’t think I smiled that much at any other point in the race.  Seeing them was amazing.

As we made our way toward the car, I asked what time it was. When they told me, I was surprised. I thought the previous section would take much less time than it did. I was discouraged: “I’m stronger than this,” I said to Sarah as she, Jeremy, and I hiked to the car. “I ran a faster race than this. I’m better than this.” I said. “Then move your fucking ass!” Sarah said. I started to run again until we reached the car, both frustrated with myself and smiling from Sarah’s levity (I should have known she wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself). Sarah and I both changed clothes and then continued the climb to No Name Ridge.

Mineral Creek to No Name Ridge (~mile 80):

As we made the climb to No Name, Sarah and I found ourselves leap-frogging with another runner and his pacer, who expressed their anxiety about making the next cutoff. As quickly as I perked up seeing Jeremy, my mood instantly changed at the thought of missing a cutoff. “What cutoff?” I asked Sarah. “Just keep moving,” she said. “When is the cutoff?” I pushed. “You have 1:40 to go two miles,” she said. "You need to keep moving." It seemed like so much time and like not enough. My left heel was starting to hurt from all of the pounding on the wet terrain, and we were climbing. I was moving as quickly as I could, but it didn't feel fast enough. I started to get upset, but I didn’t stop moving.

We reached No Name Ridge well ahead of cutoff. There was no need to worry. As always, I should have listened to Sarah.  We visited briefly with Matt and Betsy as we refueled. Matt assured me that I was going to make it, that no one drops at Thorp Mountain (the next aid station). “Oh, I'm not dropping," I said. "I have run 280+ miles of this slam. They’ll have to pull my ass off the course." I ate another serving of tater tots, grabbed a couple of pancakes for the trail, and Sarah and I were on our way to Thorp Mountain.

No Name Ridge to French Cabin (~mile 88):

As Sarah and I made our way to Thorp Mountain, the weather started to get worse and worse, though we’d expected it to gradually improve. The wind picked up, especially in the exposed sections, and it started to rain harder.

It was difficult for Sarah and me to keep our body temperatures up because we couldn’t hold a consistent pace. We were climbing. Up along exposed ridgelines, through the needles, and to the summit of Thorp Mountain, we were climbing continuously. My teeth were chattering and I was shaking. We continued to climb. Tears welled in my eyes. We continued to climb. “I’ve come too far for this to fall apart, Sarah.” We continued to climb. “I’m getting hypothermic,” I finally yelled back to Sarah against the wind. “You are not getting hypothermic on my watch, Des!” Sarah said. She’d seen it happen twice; she wasn’t going to let it happen again. “I need to get off this fucking mountain,” I said. "Keep moving," she yelled back. This section, probably the hardest for me, is the one of which I’m most proud. I was suffering, truly suffering. I was freezing and I was scared and I was crying, but I never stopped moving. I hiked and I ran and I ate when I needed to. I never death-marched and I never gave up. With relentless forward motion, with every single step, I gave everything I had in me, and I never stopped moving. 

As we finally started to descend the mountain, the temperature started to increase noticeably and we heard an aid station. “That can’t be French Cabin,” I said. “It’s too soon.” We turned a corner and saw a sign welcoming us to French Cabin aid station. We had made it to mile 88. “Wipe your tears, Des,” Sarah said. “We don’t cry at aid stations.”

French Cabin to Silver Creek (~mile 95):

We stayed at French Cabin just long enough to get some soup to take with us. As soon as we finished eating, we crumpled our cups and began running the long descent from the aid station, I with renewed energy knowing that we were running to Jeremy and Eric, who would be waiting to see us at the final aid station.

Sarah and me running in to Silver Creek aid station (photo by Jeremy Long).

Sarah and me running in to Silver Creek aid station (photo by Jeremy Long).

Despite being mostly downhill and very runnable, the journey from French Cabin to Silver Creek aid station seemed to take a long time, partially due to anticipation and partially because it was further than we originally thought. “I just want to get to Jeremy and Eric,” I’d tell Sarah over and over. For me, reaching them, getting to that aid station, meant that I would finish. I knew what the aid station looked like from when I’d crewed before, but every switchback started to look the same. Finally, after another eternity, we heard cheering. “We made it off the mountain, Des!” Sarah said. I couldn’t have been happier or more energized. I had made it through the storm and my goal of a sub-30 hour finish was in reach. 

Silver Creek to the Finish (mile 100):

Jeremy and me at Silver Creek aid station.

Jeremy and me at Silver Creek aid station.

Sarah and I stayed at Silver Lake just long enough to drop some gear with Eric and Jeremy and eat something. I turned to Sarah: “Let’s finish this effing race.” It was 3:00pm, and I had just under an hour to make it to the finish if I wanted to break 30 hours. I ran and walked as fast as I could, but my ankle was in excruciating pain. “You need to push harder,” Sarah said every time I slowed down. “I’m running as fast as I can,” I replied. “I feel like my ankle is going to fucking rupture.” “Your ankle isn’t going to fucking rupture,” Sarah yelled. “Run faster.” My watch had long since died and I relied on Sarah to monitor my pace. She knew how much  I wanted to break 30 hours, and she pushed me. I had plenty of time if the distance to the finish line was exactly what we anticipated, but, since so many aid stations had been further than we expected, we didn't know for sure. I must have asked her every 30 seconds what time it was. She pushed me harder. 

As we ran down the road and into Easton, I could see the fire station where the race starts/finishes in the distance, but it never seemed to get any closer. Another runner ran by and told me how much time I had if I wanted to break 30 hours. It was his goal too. I moaned in pain, my ankle burning with every step. Finally, we reached the train tracks outside the fire station. “I fully expect you to drop me, Des,” said Sarah. “I can’t keep up with you.” With that, I took off as hard and as fast as I could. I rounded the corner to the fire station, Jeremy and Eric there to cheer me in. I crossed the finish line in 29:52 and I threw down my water bottle, completely dumbfounded by what had happened over the course of the last day.

If a picture could write a blog... Sarah and me running to the finish line (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

If a picture could write a blog... Sarah and me running to the finish line (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

I never toe the start line of a race with the presumption that I will finish. I toe the line knowing that I will give everything I have to give on that day and hope with every fiber that it’s enough. I planned for this race, but I was terrified to run it. I didn’t want to believe that the outcome was predetermined by the weather, and so I fought. When I finished, and even now, I’m still amazed by and proud of what I was able to overcome. I have never been so scared. I did not finish Cascade Crest the same runner I was when I started it. With that, I am both humbled and proud, excited and terrified as I make my way to southern Oregon tomorrow to toe the line of the final race in the Larry Slam: Pine to Palm 100.

 

 

Tahoe Rim Trail 100: A Glimpse of Heaven, a Taste of Hell

Let this hell be our heaven.
— Richard Matheson
Around mile 40 (photo by Facchino Photography).

Around mile 40 (photo by Facchino Photography).

 A friend once told me that he couldn’t wait for the day when I wrote a race report about a 100-miler where nothing went wrong. To that, I say that such a race report is either untruthful or uninteresting. Too many things can happen over the course of running 100 miles through the mountains to ever hope that nothing will go wrong. We train. We prepare. We run. We eat. We problem solve. Things still go wrong. It is the process of working through those difficulties and taking one more step, even when everything seems hopeless, that makes us the runners we are and the finish lines rewarding. On that note, this will not be a race report about running 100 miles; it will be one about running 12.5 miles at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, because a race report about 89 perfect miles just isn’t interesting.

It had already been dark for several hours as I sat in a chair at the Tunnel Creek aid station (mile 67.5), chilled and tired from my second pass through the Red House Loop and battling GI issues. I watched runner after runner go into the medical tent and not come back out as I slowly ate some potato chips and tried to keep myself from falling into the dark hole I could feel myself entering. I thought about what lie ahead (because TRT 100 is a two-loop course, I had already seen everything once) and, while I never considered dropping, I couldn’t fathom how I would continue.

Around mile 56  (photo by Colleen Powers).

Around mile 56  (photo by Colleen Powers).

"You need to stay warm," I thought, as I slowly put on layers, first a jacket, then a buff, then mittens with chemical hand warmers. I stared down at my feet. "Are you okay?" asked my pacer, Colleen. We had already been at that aid station at least 8-10 minutes. "I’m tired and I feel like crap," I said. "Nothing that everyone else around me doesn’t feel too." I kept staring at my feet as though doing so would miraculously give them the energy necessary to start running again. As I looked up, I saw Ann Trason enter the medical tent with a runner she was pacing. Ann Trason, whose tenacity, strength, and will have always made her an inspiring person to me. At that moment, I knew that no amount of sitting or eating or thinking was going to solve my problems. I had done what I could do during that moment of my race. What I needed to do now was get up and keep pushing, to find some strength, no matter how long it took and no matter how hard it was.

I stood from the chair and I entered the medical tent, which, as anyone who has crewed me will attest, I never do. In my mind, entering a medical tent often means never leaving the aid station, and I don’t want to give myself that option. I walked up to Ann Trason: "You don’t know me," I said, "but seeing you gave me the motivation to get out of that chair." We chatted for a minute as her runner sat with the medical staff. As I started to leave, she hugged me, which gave me in mental fortitude what I currently lacked in physical strength, and I left Tunnel Creek, running back into the night.

The next 5 miles consisted of a steady climb toward the Diamond Peak aid station. My spirits were still good, but I was fading. I was three weeks out from finishing Western States and I had never been so tired in my life. I had to stop several times along the trail, leaning against the granite boulders, just to catch my breath and bring myself back to center after listing from side to side (almost off) the trail. Colleen tried to talk to me, but even conversation couldn’t keep me awake. By the time we reached the Bullwheel aid station at ~72, the wind had picked up significantly and I was getting cold, so Colleen and I stopped under the tent to take shelter for a few minutes. It was during this time that I discovered my love for Goldfish crackers. Apparently, when my GI gives out and my stomach isn’t cooperating, Goldfish crackers are the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. As I sat with a mixing bowl of crackers in my lap, Colleen looked at her phone. "I wasn't sure if I should tell you this," she said, "but you’re listed as a DNF." All sleepiness subsided at that instant, and I was simultaneously livid and defeated. "What do you mean I’m listed as a DNF? I didn’t quit. I’ve never come close to quitting! I checked in at every single aid station!" I looked over at the kid who was singlehandedly manning the aid station overnight: "Did you get my bib number? I am here. I didn't quit." He acknowledged my number and told me he noted it as Colleen assured me that my next pacer, Kari, was already trying to resolve the situation. Then it occurred to me that everyone at home who was following along probably also thought I had dropped. I asked Colleen to send a message to a friend that I was okay and still on course. After she sent the message, we continued the climb to the Diamond Peak.

Around mile 60 (photo by Colleen Powers).

Around mile 60 (photo by Colleen Powers).

Not long after leaving Bullwheel, I started to get tired once again. The flood of emotion after hearing I was listed as a DNF took the last of my energy and I was relegated to a death march. Uphill or down, it didn’t matter. I was death marching to Diamond Peak and I still had 8 miles to go. After a half mile, Colleen tried to motivate me by telling me how close we were to the aid station. I hunched over: "It feels so far away," I said. "and I have no idea how I'm going to make that climb again." "You can't think about that right now," Colleen said. "You need to think about getting to Diamond Peak. These are probably going to be 7 of the hardest miles you've ever covered, but you're going to have to get through them."

Death marching from exhaustion, I started to get really cold. Entering this race, my predisposition to hypothermia was always my greatest concern, so I knew I needed to do something about the chill quickly; I was just moving too slowly to get my body temperature back up, despite all of the layers I was already wearing. So, I wrapped myself in Colleen’s shiny gold emergency blanket and continued my death march, the blanket blowing and making a crunching sound in the wind as runner after runner passed me, disappearing into the darkness. A death march. I was relegated to the death march that I swore wouldn’t happen again. I was so disappointed in myself. I knew I would pull out of it (I had to), but it was everything I could do just to push forward, let alone see to the other side I knew I’d eventually reach. 

Kari and me at the top of Diamond Peak, mile ~82.

Kari and me at the top of Diamond Peak, mile ~82.

Colleen was right. Those 7 miles were some of the most difficult I've ever covered, not because the terrain was technical (although it was) or because it was cold and windy and I was having trouble breathing (all of those things were issues), but because I was so depleted and unimaginably tired. As we approached the Diamond Peak aid station after what seemed like an entire night, it occurred to both Colleen and me that I had not eaten in at least 3 hours. It was an inexcusable mistake on my part, but one I had made nonetheless. I told Colleen I was going to stay at that aid station until the sun came up. "I need to pull my shit together mentally if I'm going to be able to do that climb again, I said." We walked into the aid station and saw Kari, who would be my next pacer. She wrapped her arms around me and asked what I needed. "A new body and a better attitude," I said. "She needs food," Colleen said. The two of them sat me down, still wrapped in the emergency blanket. Kari brought me a plain pancake, which was a welcome change from the Gu and PB&J I'd been eating for hours. I asked for another, this time dripping in syrup. I inhaled that one too. Then I looked around me to see runners everywhere lying down, some getting medical attention and some sleeping. "I'm going to lie down for 15 minutes," I said. "No more than 15 minutes, though. I need to finish this." Kari nodded and agreed to set a timer. I took the emergency blanket to a corner of the room and lied down next to the other runners. Fifteen minutes later, Kari tapped me on the shoulder: "It's time to go," she said. As I sat up, Colleen kneeled down next to me and gave me a hug. I thanked her for getting me to that point and I started to stand. 

Kari and I checked out of the aid station and began to make the climb up Diamond Peak. "I need to finish this race," I said. "I have to finish." "You will," she said. "You have 11 hours to cover 22 miles." It seemed both like a world of time and like not enough. We began the two-mile climb up Diamond Peak, which, surprisingly, felt better at mile 80 than it did at mile 30. On my first loop, it took 57 minutes, so I expected it to take me somewhere around 1:15-1:20 on the second loop. To my surprise, it took 47 minutes and I felt amazing. I was tired, but I was not in pain, and I had energy. When we reached the top of the climb, runners were cheering, no doubt because they, too, had no idea how they were going to complete that climb again. I looked back at the beautiful view, and then I kneeled down to retie my shoes, ate a Gu, and looked at Kari: "I'm ready to run now," I said. From there and for the next ~20 miles, I ran my way to the finish line at Spooner Lake, feeling just as strong as I did when I started the race.

Tahoe was not a perfect race for me and to say that it was would be untrue. I was tired in a way I could never have imagined and I had GI issues. I felt defeated by the inaccuracy of the race tracking and I spent a good 7 miles death marching with an emergency blanket wrapped around me. But, I also had 89 amazingly good, strong miles in a breathtaking place (both literally and figuratively) that holds a special place in my heart as one that was dear to my father. For that and for the amazing support I had both from race volunteers and new friends, I am incredibly grateful. They say that TRT 100 is "a glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell." It is true, and to that end, I say that we cannot experience one without the other.

Western States 100: The Final Chapter

Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.
— Roosevelt
My crew (Larry, Sarah, and Megan) and me two days before the race.

My crew (Larry, Sarah, and Megan) and me two days before the race.

"Don't blink," said my friend Larry as we ran the weekend after the Western States lottery. "It will be here before you know it." Six and a half months and several hundred training hours later, I found myself standing in the dark, among a crowd of runners, staring up at the iconic white arch that read "Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA." I stood in complete awe as I watched the clock count down the minutes until the start of the race. A runner approached me: "Are you okay? You kinda look like you're freaking out." "I'm great," I said with a shaky voice. "I just can't believe I'm actually here." As the race clock ticked, the crowd started to count down: 5...4...3...2...1. It was time. I blinked, and six and a half months had passed before I knew it.

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat (miles 1-29.7):

I began the 2,550 ft. climb up the Escarpment out of Squaw Valley and quickly felt the effects of the increasing altitude. As the sun slowly started to rise behind me, I began to hike backwards to see the orange and yellow light shine over the mountains that surround Lake Tahoe. "Wow," I thought. "I'm really here." The crowd was quiet, but the energy was deafening. 

The roughly 4.5-mile climb up the pass was mostly silent until runners began to reach the top where we were greeted by a small crowd that had hiked the climb in the pre-dawn hours to cheer us on.

Once at the top of the climb, I dipped over the other side of the mountain and followed the Western States trail into the high country of the Sierras. The terrain was dusty and rocky, quite different from the sections of the course I'd seen before. The wildflowers -- brushstrokes of blue, red, and yellow against the mountain ridgeline -- were as breathtaking as the climb to reach them. 

Running in to the Robinson Flat aid station. 

Running in to the Robinson Flat aid station. 

It wasn't long before the temperature started to rise and the exposed trails of the high country started to get hot. Even at a high altitude, my watch showed that it was well over 90 degrees. I made a conscious decision fairly quickly to run conservatively. I knew that if I tried to push my pace, they heat would impact me too early.  I was conscious of my effort, taking time to fuel, hydrate, and cool off in every stream I crossed. 

As I made the long climb out of Duncan Canyon, I saw the trail lined with carnage, runners who were beginning to feel the effects of the heat and the altitude. I made my way to Robinson Flat, the first aid station where I would see my crew. I started to shake because I was so hot. 

Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff (miles 29.7-55.7):

When I reached my crew at Robinson Flat, they were ready for me. Having seen so many overheated runners arrive at that aid station and subsequently drop, they knew they'd need to be ready to cool me down. They sat me in a chair, gave me food, covered me with a cold, wet towel, and packed ice into my clothes. I started to shake: "I'm getting cold," I said. "I'm ready to go." Still a little nauseous from trying to cram in calories in the heat, I began to walk out of the aid station. As I left, Megan looked at me: "Keep your head," she said." She watched me fall apart mentally at Pine to Palm, and we both knew that keeping my shit together would be the key to me finishing this race. "I've got my head," I said.

While I had never seen most of the first 30 miles of the course, the subsequent 70 or so miles following Robinson Flat were very familiar territory as I had run them in training camp three consecutive years and had paced many of them. Entering the canyons felt like going home. I knew what lie ahead. Butterflies replaced nausea, and I embraced the challenge with excitement. 

After spending several hot hours on the exposed trails in the high country, the canyons felt relatively temperate, and I began to feel comfortable picking up the pace. The miles passed quickly, and I was amazed by how good I felt. 

When I reached the climb to Devil's Thumb around mile 46, I was surprised to catch up with my friend Stephen, whom I expected to be hours ahead of me. Nauseated, he was sitting on the side of the trail. I wanted so desperately to help him, but there was nothing I could do. I asked if he wanted me to send help back, but he said he didn't. Seeing him struggle made me push harder; I would finish this thing and I would do it for him. I reached the top of the climb in a personal best time of 39 minutes. Elated, knowing I would  get to see my crew soon, I quickly left the aid station.

Devil's Thumb was soon followed by another climb out of the canyon, one that I expected to be difficult. Surprised again, the climb was not as hard as I anticipated. As I reached the top, I saw Stephen's wife, nervously waiting for him. I told her how he was and when I last saw him, and then we ran into the Michigan Bluff aid station together. 

Michigan Bluff to Foresthill (miles 55.7-62):

At Michigan Bluff (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Michigan Bluff (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I approached the aid station, I saw my good friend and pacer, Larry. I yelled with excitement: "I still have legs!"  I felt stronger than I had ever felt at this point in a 100-mile race. "You're just getting stronger, Des!" my friend Sarah said.

I reached Michigan Bluff at 7:45 p.m. Runners are allowed to pick up their pacers early if they leave the aid station after 8:00 p.m., so I was faced with a choice: I could sit there for 15 minutes and pick up a pacer early or I could continue on. I quickly ate, dropped some gear, picked up my headlamp, and decided to keep going. I would pick up my first pacer at Foresthill as originally planned.

As I ran out of the aid station, I heard Megan call from behind, telling me that our friend Drake was leaving too. "Work together," she said. Drake and I had both had pretty lonely days on the trail, so we decided to run the 6ish-mile stretch to Foresthill together. As we ran together and chatted, we both slowed a little, but we both savored sharing the trail time with a friend. As we made the climb to Foresthill, we chatted the time away and watched the sky turn orange and yellow once again. It would be dark soon.

When Drake and I reached Bath Road near Foresthill, we saw Megan, who would be my first pacer. It was dark, but I could tell by her voice that she was excited and smiling. As we ran side by side to meet the rest of the crew. Megan said "You're in Forestall, Des!"  "Foresthill!" I said.  "I made it to Forest fucking hill!" I ran faster.

After eating and restocking a few things, Megan and I were headed down Cal Street and into the night. 

Foresthill to Green Gate (miles 62-79.8):

As Megan and I ran, it felt like any other weekend, and we were both happy that it felt nothing like the death march that was Pine to Palm last fall. With every step, I felt increasingly motivated by Megan's positive, happy energy. The time passed quickly, and we both looked forward to seeing our friend Shannon at the Peachstone aid station (mile 70.7).

As we approached Peachstone, my attitude was still positive, but my energy started to fade quickly. I was exhausted, my feet hurt, and all I wanted to do was sleep. When we reached Peachstone, I was greeted by  Shannon's bright smile and a big hug. She and Megan sat me in a chair, gave me some broth, and started the one-minute timer. Sitting felt amazing, but Megan and I knew I couldn't stay long, One minute passed and I was up again and we were headed out. 

As we started to run, my energy dwindled and my feet hurt more and more. I was starting to get hot spots and I was reduced to a slow shuffle. Megan and I made the conscious decision not to deal with my feet until reaching the river. We knew that I'd likely change my shoes after crossing and that Larry would be there and would be better equipped to deal with them than we would. I tried to stay positive, but I couldn't help but start to worry that I was moving too slowly to make the cutoffs. Megan kept reminding me to stay out of my head and helped me focus on the positives. "What are three things that are going right?" she'd ask. "Name three people who are thinking about you right now," she'd say. It was dark, but Megan helped me focus on small slivers of light. "Keep your head," I chanted to myself. "It always gets better," I repeated. "Who are you doing this for?" Megan would ask. "I'm doing it for Larry, and for Sarah, and for Moe, and for Stephen, and for everyone back home who believed in me."

The miles between Peachstone and the river passed slowly, as I knew they would, but eventually we saw the bright lights of the aid station and the moon reflecting off the water.

Crossing Rucky Chucky with Megan (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Crossing Rucky Chucky with Megan (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As we descended to the river, I heard a voice yell: "Desiree and Megan!" It was our friend Eric from Portland. He greeted us with a smile and hugs. "Welcome to the river," he said. I started to tear up. "Welcome to the river," another volunteer said as she put a lifejacket on me. "You're going to finish Western States." Tears started to stream down my face. I had always told myself that if I could make it to the river, my chances of finishing would be high. I had made it to the river. If I could stay ahead of the cutoffs, I was going to finish Western States. 

When we reached the other side of the river, we were greeted by the cheers of Larry and Sarah, who were patiently awaiting our arrival. I told Larry that I had hot spots on my feet and wasn't sure how we should deal with them. As Sarah set out food for me, Larry sat me down in a chair to assess the damage. "You have a blister on your heel," he said, "but your feet look pretty good. We agreed that I should change my socks and shoes and that that was all we'd do. I ate as much food as I could stomach, which wasn't much, and the four of use began the climb to Green Gate, where Sarah and Megan would continue on to the car and Larry would take over pacing.

Friend Kristin, from Portland, helping me out of the river, Megan behind me (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Friend Kristin, from Portland, helping me out of the river, Megan behind me (photo by Sarah Duncan).

The climb felt long and strenuous, but my feet felt much better in dry shoes and socks. Still, I stumbled along the rocky road in a sleep-deprived stupor. When we reached the Green Gate aid station, the four of us stopped to part ways. Megan gave me a hug: "I don't know how I'm going to do this," I said. "You can do it," she replied.

Green Gate to Highway 49 (miles 79.8-93.5):

Larry and I headed off into the darkness. "We're going to turn this race around, Des. You're going to eat and we're going to start running." I thought he was being unrealistically optimistic, but I respected his experience and I listened to everything he told me. He knew where my hot spots were and he  watched me run. He then started telling me how to adjust my gait so I could run and not shuffle. "Use gravity," he said, "not effort." It wasn't long before my shuffle turned into a jog and my jog into a run. Soon, I started to wake up and I started to eat. We had turned my race around. Larry was right.

I felt an unprecedented sense of confidence being able to run so late in a race when, previously, I had been reduced to a shuffle or even a death march. I was running and running at a good pace. Confidence restored, Larry and I began to chat like it was any other weekend run. Before we knew it, the birds were chirping, the sun had risen, and we were at Brown's Bar aid station (mile 89.9). We had turned my race around and I was going to make it. We quickly refueled (I with gels and soda and Larry with beer -- "I only have 3 miles left," he chuckled) and we began the 3.5-mile stretch to Highway 49, where Sarah would take over pacing.

Highway 49 to Placer High School (miles 93.5-100.2):

The meadow outside the Highway 49 aid station. 

The meadow outside the Highway 49 aid station. 

By the time we reached the Highway 49 aid station (mile 93.5), I had been running strong for quite a while. I was excited and I was determined to finish. As I grabbed some food, I heard Larry say to Sarah: "She's back." I could feel his confidence in me, and I was ready to make the final push. As Sarah and I started to leave, I looked back at Larry. Overcome with gratitude, both for his positive energy and wisdom during the night, I turned back and gave him a hug before finally leaving the aid station.

The stretch from Highway 49 to Auburn is a beautiful, albeit difficult one. Anticipating the heat that was setting in again and the climb that was ahead, I tried to savor the runnable trail while it lasted and the beauty that surrounded me, while chatting with my dear friend Sarah. 

Crossing No Hands Bridge (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Crossing No Hands Bridge (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

The time it took to reach No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8) seemed to fly by, despite being reduced to a tired jog. As we descended to No Hands, my voice started to get shaky with emotion and I had difficulty talking. "When this is over," I said, "I'll be able to say I left every ounce of everything I had in the Sierras." As we crossed the bridge, a volunteer said: "Congratulations. You're about to finish Western States." The tears that had been welling in my eyes, tears of awe and surprise, lack of confidence and return of confidence, tears of pure unadulterated joy, streamed down my face. 

Crossing the finish line with my crew by my side (photo by Jennifer Love).

Crossing the finish line with my crew by my side (photo by Jennifer Love).

As Sarah and I made the hot climb to Robie Point, it started to sink in, and I stopped in the middle of the trail: "I'm going to finish Western States, Sarah." "Yes, you are, Des!" As we neared the top of the climb, we started to see the crowd of spectators and then Megan, Larry, and our friend Jennifer  waiting to run the final mile with us. "Everyone in Portland just started cheering, Des," Sarah said. Megan pulled out her phone and started playing Fight Song by Rachael Platten, a song I had listened to no less than 1,000 times during my training, though I never mentioned it to her. "I smell rubber," Larry said. "I see track," said Sarah. I ran faster. My feet touched down on the track, but the finish line felt so far away. That .2 miles may as well have been another 100, and yet I ran faster. "I can't hold this pace," I thought. I ran faster.  "I need to stop," I thought." I ran faster. 

Megan, Larry, Sarah, and me post awards ceremony. 

Megan, Larry, Sarah, and me post awards ceremony. 

They call it "The Golden Hour," the hour before the final cutoff by which runners must complete the race in order to be considered finishers. I crossed the finish line in 29:10:19, 49 minutes and 41 seconds before the finial cutoff, running a sub-7:00 pace, surrounded by overwhelming love and support, and feeling stronger than I ever have crossing the finish line of a 100-mile race. I crossed the finish line during the Golden Hour, but I felt like I won. 

 

The Journey to Western States 100 (vol. 4)

Passion always looks like sacrifice to those who aren’t in love.
— Shalane Flanagan
Climbing Devil's Thumb (photo by Joe McCladdle).

Climbing Devil's Thumb (photo by Joe McCladdle).

Today is June 1, which officially marks the beginning of Western States month! As I make the final push toward the start line in Squaw Valley, it’s time for one final update.

May was by far the most challenging training month for me to date. I ran the McDonald Forest 50k at the beginning of the month, ran  an overnight 50k the following weekend, spent Memorial Day weekend at Western States training camp in Auburn, and then ended the month with one final overnight run.

This year was my 4th time running the McDonald Forest 50k. It's normally a difficult race, but unseasonably warm temperatures for Oregon spring, coupled with some course modifications, made it particularly difficult this year. Despite running on tired legs, I was surprised to feel pretty good the entire time, almost matching my course PR, and it turned out to be an absolutely beautiful day.

Finishing the McDonald Forest 50k (photo by Michael Leibowitz) .

Finishing the McDonald Forest 50k (photo by Michael Leibowitz) .

Post-overnight 50k with the amazing friends who were awesome enough to spend a night in the forest with me.

Post-overnight 50k with the amazing friends who were awesome enough to spend a night in the forest with me.

The overnight run the following weekend was tough. We started at around 8:15pm and finished just after 2:00 the following morning. I was tired and sore, which I expected, but I also had horrible stomach issues for most of the night, culminating with dry heaving on and off for the last three miles. It’s common for me to have stomach issues late in a 100-mile race, but never during a distance as short as 50k, so that was unexpected. In a way, I was thankful for the issues, though, because, although I continue to experiment with new things to try to minimize stomach problems, I had the opportunity to remember what I’m likely to feel again in a few weeks.

My friend Stephen (also running WS100 this year) and me on day 1 of training camp).

My friend Stephen (also running WS100 this year) and me on day 1 of training camp).

Training camp day 1: the canyons.

Training camp day 1: the canyons.

Training camp was an amazing experience. Having the privilege to run on the Western States course is always a special experience, but this year was particularly meaningful because I was able to share it with so many friends and because this was my first time running the training runs as a race entrant. This was my third year participating in the training runs, so I knew what to expect, but, this time, I approached the runs with a different mindset, constantly thinking about where I was on the actual race course and how I would approach the climbs/descents/heat/terrain at those moments during the race. It was good preparation both physically and mentally.

Training camp marked the peak of my training and capped off a 103-mile week. The following week was a recovery week, which included another overnight run and some mountain repeats, but was relatively low mileage. Now, as I enter the first week of June, I am preparing myself to make the final push to Squaw and on to Auburn. I'm tired and I'm sore, but I am relentless in my training, from PT exercises and yoga to sauna sessions and long runs. My legs are heavy, but my excitement grows with every day. Most of all, I'm healthy. I have one more big training week ahead of me and then I will begin my taper. My good friend Sarah says that if you're not looking forward to the taper, then you didn't train hard enough. I have loved every single painful, heart-pounding, calf-burning, quad-pounding moment of my training, but I am ready for the taper. It's time.

The Journey to Western States 100 (vol. 3)

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
— Hemingway
Peterson Ridge Rumble (photo by David Mitchell)

Peterson Ridge Rumble (photo by David Mitchell)

"You don't get to be tired today." That's what I've told myself every morning since being able to train again. Recovery from my back/glute injury was longer than anticipated and I had to take a relatively significant amount of time off from all training to let both heal. It was a minor setback in the grand scheme, but a long enough one to slow me down and impact my fitness. Sometime around the middle to end of March, though, I was able to start running and training again, slowly increasing my mileage and focusing on rebuilding strength through PT and yoga.

Capitol Peak 50 miler (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

Capitol Peak 50 miler (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

At the end of March, I ran two consecutive self-supported 50k training runs. Although both were difficult with my reduced fitness, combined they were a big confidence boost, and I started to feel like I was making headway in the healing process. In the middle of April, I ran my first race in over 5 months, the Peterson Ridge Rumble 40 miler in Sisters, OR. With the exception of getting off course and banking some bonus miles, this training race couldn't have gone better. I felt good the entire time, I had no down moments, and, despite some residual back pain, my body held up very well. Within a day or so, I felt totally recovered. Two weeks later, I ran the Capitol Peak 50 miler in Capitol Forest, WA. I ran both races without a reduction in mileage or a taper, and I'm happy to say I felt remarkably good and ended them both with a smile on my face. Most of all, I had fun.

View from the summit of Kings Mountain, OR, where I pound my quads.

View from the summit of Kings Mountain, OR, where I pound my quads.

As the weeks have progressed, I've continued to build my mileage with focus on recovery and strength training. Speed on the roads and hill repeats in the mountains."You don't get to be tired today." PT, yoga, sauna, repeat. "You don't get to be tired today." I can feel my body start to repair itself, though exhaustion set in long ago. That's not to say that I don't love every moment of training; just that life obligations, work, and other stressors weigh on everyone and they, too, take their toll when it comes to training. Finding balance and fitting everything in while still finding time to sleep and recover and the energy to make dinner is a perpetual struggle. Still, I wouldn't trade this time for anything. The hours I spend in the mountains are some of the most difficult moments, but they are also some of the most peaceful and rewarding. 

As I write this, Western States is 58 days away. Although battling a head cold and an achy foot, I am generally healthy and feel good. I am fortunate to have the support of an amazing community of runners I have come to view as family, people who have shouldered my doubts through injury and encouraged me through recovery, pushing me to work harder and reminding me that I am stronger than I think I am. Every day I get a little stronger and move a little further along in the recovery process, and every day I am thankful for the chance to continue this journey to Squaw Valley.

Simple Gratitude

Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.
— Dr. Seuss

My dad loved Dr. Seuss, and few things gave him the same joy he experienced reading Dr. Seuss to his children and grandchildren. When I pursued my graduate degree in literature, he credited himself and Yertle the Turtle for my passion for literature. When my dad's battle with cancer ended three years ago, my siblings and I found it only fitting that it was on Dr. Seuss's birthday. 

For me, losing my dad was a lot like getting divorced. It was devastating and I knew life would never quite be the same. As time passed, though, life without my dad (just like life without my spouse) became my new existence, and the inevitable pain that accompanies loss eased with each passing day. Memories faded. There are still times when I reach for the phone to call my dad to share an accomplishment or seek his advice only to realize that it's not possible, but, for the most part, I've grown accustomed to this new life. 

As a child of the Depression, my dad never had much, but, as far back as I can remember, he always had a profound appreciation for the simplest things in life, even once his quality of life diminished. During his last few years, his greatest joy came from lying outside in the sun, listening to the creek that ran through the backyard at my childhood home in Montana. To him, nothing was better than being outdoors, and the mountains made him feel more alive. 

I have 9 siblings and we all had a different relationship with my dad. Likewise, we all took something different away from our loss. After watching my dad's quality of life fade, I have tried to be thankful for every moment of every day -- for the time I'm able to spend in the mountains and for the monotony of sitting in my office -- and to remind myself that every moment of my existence (mundane, painful, exciting, and happy) is a privilege. So, today, on Dr. Seuss's birthday, I just want to take a moment to be thankful for the slow steps in recovery from injury that I am taking, for the beautiful spring day, and for having had the opportunity to know someone who so profoundly impacted my outlook on life. And for my appreciation of Dr. Seuss.  

The Journey to Western States 100 (vol. 2)

The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.
— Tolstoy
Beacon Rock State Park, WA.

Beacon Rock State Park, WA.

It has now been nearly two and a half months since the Western States 100 lottery. For most of December, I did not spend any time thinking about training. Instead, I focused on enjoying my time running, whether I ran 30 miles or 5, deep in the mountains or on the road. My goals were to recover fully, both physically and mentally, from Waldo 100k/Pine to Palm 100/Javelina 100, to stay healthy, and to continue to find joy with movement. I was successful. December was a blissful month of fabulous running, spent with good friends in beautiful places. 

Silver Falls, OR.

Silver Falls, OR.

In January, I eased myself into training, although my weekly mileage was already fairly high. I felt great. I felt strong. I got faster with every run. I started training with my friend Larry, running 25-30 miles every Saturday, him pushing me to find my limits with every passing mile. I had never felt better or stronger. 

Salmon River Trail, OR.

Salmon River Trail, OR.

At the beginning of February, I moved in with family temporarily while searching for new place to live. One morning 16 days ago, after finishing another fabulous run, I stepped into the shower, tripping over my nephews' toys and falling  on the right side of my coccyx/glute so hard that I felt a shock vertebrate up my spine and into my head. I sat for several minutes, stunned and in tears from the pain. For the next day, I was lightheaded and nauseous, and my neck was stiff. Still, I was able to run without issue, and that's what was important. And then I couldn't. The following Sunday, four days after my fall and six days before my first race of the year, I set out for a short run. Only minutes in, the sacral region of my back started to hurt so much that I had to loop back to my car. By that afternoon, I was barely able to walk. I rested the rest of the afternoon and the next day, doing only my regular yoga routine. When I tried running the following Tuesday, I felt a sharp pain shoot from my low back into my glute. I was not able to run. 

Forest Park, OR.

Forest Park, OR.

Having suffered several severe injuries in the past, having worked with injured athletes in the last year, and knowing how ambitious my plans this year are, I made the conscious decision to take a proactive approach to facing this injury and ceased all activity, using a variety of therapies (including ice, heat, anti inflammatories, massage therapy, and yoga) until I could see my athletic trainer. My massage therapist confirmed that I had a neck strain and that the tension had spread down my back. She speculated that I had a ligament tear in my sacral region. After my AT examined me last Monday, her working diagnosis was a low back strain and a glute strain. She gave me strengthening exercises to facilitate recovery and muscle activation, but the only thing that would heal the injuries would be time. I needed to be patient.

My Western states 100 crew and pacers (Megan, Larry, and Sarah).

My Western states 100 crew and pacers (Megan, Larry, and Sarah).

Time. It's always what medical providers say we need to give our injuries, but it never seems to pass quickly enough. Every day I do my exercises as prescribed, and every day I try to run. I crosstrain to maintain fitness and strength. I can feel the injuries improve with each passing day, but the pain is still prominent and constant. While my frustration continues to grow (now 16 days post fall and 12 days since I last ran), I find calm in knowing that, for once, I took the right approach to healing. So, for now, I wait.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
— Isaac Newton
Larry and me at the start line of P2P100 (2014).

Larry and me at the start line of P2P100 (2014).

In the few years that I have known Larry Stephens, he has been an incredible friend, mentor, and training partner. I had the privilege of helping crew and pace him at Badwater last year and have had the opportunity to train alongside him (usually chasing him down). I have learned so much from him as a runner and as a person, and I'm proud to say he's become a very close friend. 

In 2013, Larry put together his own 100-mile slam, the Larry Slam, which began with Western States and included three additional 100-mile races that took place on the same weekends as those in the Grand Slam. Ever since Larry completed this challenge, I've aspired to do the same, though I knew I had a long way to go and a lot to learn before making such an attempt. 

In December of last year,  my dreams of getting into Western States came to fruition and, suddenly, I had the option to put together a slam. I considered the Grand Slam and would have been honored to run it, but it was cost-prohibitive, and I honestly have no desire to run LT100. I'm a big believer in only toeing the start line of a race if you're completely excited, determined, and passionate about running it; the greater the passion for something, the greater your willingness to to train, to sacrifice, and to suffer for it.  Running LT100 does not excite me. With that in mind, I knew I would not be running the Grand Slam and that this was my opportunity to finally run the Larry Slam.

My only hesitation with attempting the Larry Slam was that it included Pine to Palm 100. My memories of that race are still so fresh in my mind and my heart that I wasn't sure at first if I would be able to run it again anytime soon. I mulled over these thoughts during many long runs with Larry this winter and, somewhere along the line, I realized that I have those feelings because I am passionate about that race, because, for whatever reason, I have some connection to it. I registered for Pine to Palm and then I sent Larry a text: "Committed. I'm running the Larry Slam!"

With my slam bookended, I am now watching the wait lists for TRT and CCC. I am currently in position #12 on the TRT100 wait list, and, after this morning's lottery, position #13 on the CCC100 wait list. While anything can happen where wait lists are concerned, my position on the TRT wait list has been moving rapidly enough that I feel confident planning my summer around this schedule.  So, what will  2015 hold? I can think of no greater honor than to follow in the footsteps of my friend, mentor, and training partner and continue the Larry Slam.

  • Western States 100 - June 27-28
  • Tahoe Rim Trail 100 - July 18-19
  • Cascade Crest 100 - August 29-30
  • Pine to Palm 100 - September 12-13

The Journey to Western States 100 (vol. 1)

"We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us." -- John Steinbeck

Photo by Paul Nelson Photography.

Photo by Paul Nelson Photography.

245. That is the number of names that were drawn in the Western States lottery last Saturday before my name was picked. Like most people, I did not expect my name to be selected. There were many other people in the lottery equally deserving of the opportunity and still others with many more tickets than I had. Still, I hoped. With every fiber of anticipation, determination, passion, and love, I hoped. My dream to run Western States stems not simply from the history and notoriety of the race, but from the profound connection I feel to the landscape, from the relentless canyons and red dirt to the towering trees and Indian paintbrush. Every time I have the privilege of running in those mountains, I'm reminded of how much my dad loved that landscape, and I feel a piece of him live on through an indescribable connection that only the trail understands. 

Photo by Paul Nelson Photography.

Photo by Paul Nelson Photography.

Photo by Paul Nelson Photography

Photo by Paul Nelson Photography

As I sat in a brew pub watching the lottery with friends, I accepted a little more with each selection that this would not be my year. "It's okay," I would tell people. "I'm prepared to wait as long as I have to." As the lottery neared its end, people started to congregate near the door, preparing to make their way to other weekend obligations. Trying to fight my disappointment, I looked down at my phone. I glanced up one last time at the screen where the lottery picks were displayed and, as I started to look away, I saw the name Desiree. "Funny," I thought. "Another Desiree."  Then I saw the last name. Then I saw that this Desiree was from Oregon. Like a puzzle, all of the words in front of me suddenly fit together and I started shaking. I turned to Sarah, who had also stopped watching the lottery at this point. "Sarah," I mumbled in a voice so shaky I could hardly utter her name. "We're going to Squaw Valley." She looked at me with confusion. "What?" she asked. I lifted my shaky hand and pointed toward the screen: "I...I got in." Soon, I was surrounded by the arms of friends and it finally sank in: I'm going to Squaw Valley! 

To those who have supported me along the way and believed that someday I would make it to this point: thank you. I will not let you down. My journey to Western States 100 starts now, and I plan to savor every single step.

No Step Taken for Granted

Photo by Belinda Agamaite.

Photo by Belinda Agamaite.

"If I leave this tent, I'm crossing that finish line," I said to the medic as I tried to convince him to let me continue my race at Javelina Jundred. It had been nearly two hours since I arrived at the aid station at Jackass Junction (mile 83.2) and had been taken into the medical tent with hypothermia. I arrived shivering, barely able to continue moving forward because I was shaking so badly, and unable to eat anything because my teeth were chattering. I felt it come on (I had felt it before), but there was nothing I could do. I was wearing the only extra layer I had until I could reach my bag at Javelina Jeadquarters (mile 91.8). That seemingly short distance of just under 9 miles may as well have been another 83. It was too far for me to go in that condition. I wouldn't make it. 

When I arrived at Jackass Junction, I told my pacer I needed a cot, I needed blankets, and I needed something containing hot water to warm my arteries. A medic led me to a cot in the medical tent and gave me some blankets. Shortly after, he brought me ziplock baggies with hot water. As I placed the baggies on my brachial arteries, I looked around. I was surrounded by shivering runners on cots, all waiting for rides. After 30 minutes or so, I was still shivering. Every time the desert wind blew into the tent, I shivered a little more. I had no idea how I was going to continue. My eyes got heavy and welled with tears. "No," I told myself. "This time I will not lose it. This time, I will pull it together." "We have a car here to take you out," I heard a medic say. I glanced up from the cot, my eyes full with the tears I would not let myself cry: "I'm not done. Tell them I'm not done." The medic agreed to give me a few more minutes.  

Sarah and me at the start. 

Sarah and me at the start. 

My day at Javelina started off well. I had a soft pace goal in mind, but my plan was to run by feel. Because I had had a demanding summer and because I had run Waldo 100k and Pine to Palm 100 in the weeks leading up to Javelina, I had no firm expectations. Given that I had spent the first four months of the year unable to so much as cross train due to injury, I knew that running back-to-back 100s was an ambitious goal. I focused on recovery and quality (food, rest, running) more than I ever had before. As the weeks between Pine to Palm and Javelina progressed, I started to regain my energy. Aside for two weeks when I was very ill, I felt stronger and stronger, and I got faster and faster, with every run. I sent my friend Sarah a text: "I keep waiting to fall apart. When am I going to fall apart?" I never did. For the first time since I started running five years ago, I toed a start line of a race feeling totally prepared. 

Loop 1 (photo by Chris Furman).

Loop 1 (photo by Chris Furman).

LOOPS 1-4 (start to mile 61.2): I ran the first loop with Sarah and our friend Ethan, occasionally leap-frogging with our friend Stephen, also from Portland. We had similar pace goals and we didn't want to go out too fast, so we stayed together, talking away as though it were any other Saturday. We completed the first 15.3-mile loop in 2:49:06, and I felt strong. I set out on the second loop with Sarah. It wasn't long, though, before my stomach started to turn on me, forcing me to fall back. I've had stomach issues during 100s before, but never so early. By the time I was two loops (~50k) in, I had vomited three times. I told Sarah to run ahead and that I would catch up later. I needed to take a step back to try to get my stomach under control. By the end of loop two (~6:06 in), my stomach had settled. Unfortunately, my lungs and sinuses had not fully recovered from being so sick in the weeks prior and my breathing was very shallow, making my stomach seize into knots, which never dissipated over the course of the entire race. 

Once my stomach settled, I was able to run strong once again. My legs felt amazingly good and I had more energy than I ever anticipated. I had settled into a steady pace that I was able to maintain despite the labored breathing and knots in my stomach. Most of all, I was having fun. I reached the end of loop 4, the 100k mark, in a PR time: 13:26:41. I changed my shirt and shoes, and I met my pacer.

Approaching the 100k mark (photo by Chris Furman).

Approaching the 100k mark (photo by Chris Furman).

LOOPS 5-7 (miles 61.2-100.9): I ran loop 5 without issue, picking up an extra layer in my drop bag at Jackass Junction and running into the warm, peaceful night. The desert was dark and much quieter than it was the previous year when the howls of coyotes and the grunting of the javelina filled the air. The dark night sky lit up in all directions with lightning, illuminating the hills in the distance and the soft desert sand. I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded me. 

When I began loop 6, I was tired, but still felt good. My legs felt strong and I was still running a steady pace. As the night progressed, though, the temperature dropped rapidly within the span of only a hour, something I did not expect based on my experience the previous year when the nighttime temperature never felt cool. I had emergency layers in my drop bag at Javelina Jeadquarters, but that aid station was hours away. By mile 80, I was shivering and barely able to walk, let alone run. I crossed paths with a runner and his pacer: "Is that Desiree?" I heard. I stopped and turned off my headlamp. "It's Craig," the voice said. It was Craig Thornley. "How are you doing?" he asked. "I'm having a hard night," I said. "Some days are hard," he replied as he wrapped his arms around me and gave me a hug. All of a sudden, I was overcome with emotion, so happy to see someone from home and feel the support of the community I knew was rooting for me. "We'll see you at the finish, okay?" he said. I nodded my head, turned my light back on, and walked forward. Maybe it was seeing someone from home or maybe it was hearing someone I respect so much say that he'd see me at the finish, but I knew at that moment that my race wasn't over. 

At the start of loop 6, 76.5 miles in (photo by Belinda Agamaite).

At the start of loop 6, 76.5 miles in (photo by Belinda Agamaite).

I reached the aid station at Jackass Junction in bad condition. I knew I was hypothermic and had been for several miles. Unlike my two previous experiences with hypothermia, however, I was still coherent, giving me hope that I could pull it together. As I lie on a cot in the medical tent trying to get warm, I shivered each time the wind blew. Another runner asked me what was wrong. "I can't get warm," I said. "I'm cold on the inside and I can't stop shaking." A medic entered the tent to tell me it was their responsibility to pull me. It would not be safe to let me continue, he told me. "Wait until sunrise," the runner said. Everything will be better when the sun comes up. You'll get warm." The medic asked me if I was ready to go. "I've finished the race before and I can finish it again," I said. "Let me wait until the sun comes up." The medic left the tent to go talk to another medic. He returned. He agreed to let me go, but made me promise to check in and out of every aid station from there on, proving that I was okay. "If you decide to quit," he said. "I'm not quitting," I interrupted. He stopped talking. He handed me his sweater and a large garbage bag, both of which I put on. With renewed energy, I stood from the cot. The sun had not yet started to rise, but I didn't care. I was ready. "I'm leaving," I said.  

As I stood from the cot, I expected to be unbearably sore. I wasn't. I started to walk. My walk turned to a shuffle. My shuffle turned to a jog. Soon, my jog turned to a run. After two hours in a medical tent, any aspirations of running a specific finish time were gone, but I still had legs and I could still run. I would finish.

Sunrise on the Javelina race course (photo by Betty Lee).

Sunrise on the Javelina race course (photo by Betty Lee).

As the sun rose over the Arizona desert, I made my way back to Javelina Jeadquarters and I stripped away the garbage bag and then the medic's sweater. I caught up with the runner who talked to me in the tent. "Thank you," I said. "You saved my race." "You made it!" he exclaimed. "I didn't save your race," he replied. "You did." I thanked him again and I ran ahead. 

When I reached the start/finish area at Javelina Jeadquarters, I checked in long enough to say that I was alright and would be continuing. I asked for my glow necklace that would give me entrance to the 7th and final loop, I grabbed some food, and I left. The last loop was slow for me. I'm not proud of it. I could have moved faster and I didn't. I was determined to finish but, knowing that my finish time would probably not even match my time from the previous year, I stopped pushing. I made relentless forward progress one step at a time, but every step left me more disappointed in myself than the last. I didn't know how everything could have gone so well for so long only to fall apart due to one seemingly little mistake. I didn't know how I could let myself get hypothermia again. I felt like a failure. When I finally finished, I walked across the finish line. A volunteer handed me a buckle, a buckle exactly like the one that had brought me to tears only a year before. I paused. I considered handing it back. I didn't feel like I had earned it.

Crossing the finish line (28:41:53).

Crossing the finish line (28:41:53).

In the two weeks that have elapsed since finishing the race, I've reflected on and internalized my experience a lot. There are days when it makes me emotional and others when I feel stoic. Most of all, the last two weeks have given me perspective. When caught up in our goals and expectations, sometimes it's difficult to remember where we started. I began this year immobilized for four months with nerve damage, tissue damage, foot drop, and a torn meniscus. I devoted my year to physical therapy and rehab in an effort to regain some semblance of the strength, endurance, and speed I once had. I ended the year by running two 100-mile races in 7 weeks. For that, and for every step I've taken since starting to run again, I am thankful. I'm not where I want to be, but I'm so grateful to be where I am.  

To Hell and Back

Long is the way, and hard, that out of Hell leads to light.
— John Milton

People say that you should never toe the start line of a 100-mile race with any unresolved demons. What people don't tell you is what you should do when the race is your unresolved demon. My experience at Pine to Palm 100 in 2012 was miserable and defeating, both physically and emotionally, and it broke my confidence to an immeasurable degree. From the moment that I was cut from the race at 2:10 a.m. at mile 65 for missing a cutoff, I swore I would do whatever it took to gain the speed, experience, and strength necessary to return and finish. Next time, I would make it to Ashland. What I did not know was how much my previous experience and self-doubt would impact my journey.

I spent two years training to run Pine to Palm. I ran many races in those two years, but the end goal, the thought that always lingered in the back of my mind, was Pine to Palm. I trained, crewed, paced, and raced thousands of miles in those two years. I became more comfortable navigating mountain terrain. I changed my diet. I lost 10 lbs. I got injured and I recovered. After every good run, strong run, weak run, speed run, slow run, mountain run, and long run I emerged a little stronger.

At the start line, indescribably nervous (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At the start line, indescribably nervous (photo by Sarah Duncan).

When race weekend arrived, I was not ready to run. Despite all of the planning and all of the training, despite having a crew of dedicated friends who believed in me, I did not have an ounce of confidence. To make things worse, I had been battling an issue with my hamstring that began after pacing a friend during her 100-mile race three weeks earlier. I had done everything I could to remedy the issue, but I wasn't sure it was enough. 

Because my race in 2012 ended at mile 65 at the base of Dutchman Peak, I began my race this year with the mindset that my race didn't start until I summited Dutchman Peak at mile 67 and made the 2:00 a.m. cutoff. I had markers in my head of various points in the race and I knew roughly what my splits were for various aid stations in 2012 but, beyond that, I had no strategy. My plan was to keep a positive attitude, to savor the beauty of the course that surrounded me, and to run by feel. 

Start to Seattle Bar (28 miles):

The race began with a slow and steady climb up Greyback mountain. The climb was just as long and steep as I remembered, but, somehow, I moved a lot faster than I did in 2012. 

Smoke from the forest fires (photo by Hal Koerner).

Smoke from the forest fires (photo by Hal Koerner).

As I approached the top of the climb, the smoke from forest fires in the area became more and more dense and my breathing more and more labored. By the time I started my descent, I was already coughing. When I finally reached my crew at the Seattle Bar aid station, I felt like I was running with a weight on my chest. It was also around this time that my nose started to bleed. It continued to bleed consistently for the next 10 or so hours. 

As I approached Seattle Bar, I saw Sarah D. I told her I was having trouble breathing. "It's gets better," she said. "You wouldn't lie to me, right?" I asked. "Well," she said, "it's better in Ashland and you're going to Ashland."

I ran in to the Seattle Bar aid station and handed off my pack to the rest of my amazing crew (Megan and Marta) while I weighed in and got a popsicle. At this point in 2012, I had gained 5lbs. This year, I had gained nothing. With my confidence in my training renewed, I left, headed for the next big climb, the one I considered the worst. 

Seattle Bar to Stein Butte (~35 miles):

I remembered the climb to Stein Butte well. I knew it would be hot, steep, and long. I was prepared for that. On the drive from Portland to Williams the day before the race, Sarah joked that with my heat training and hill work, I would feel like I was on an escalator. I was surprised to find that she was right. It was hard, but not nearly as hard as I remembered. 

When I reached the Stein Butte aid station, I quickly refilled my pack with water and my bandana with ice and made my way to Squaw Lakes, where I would once again get to see my amazing crew. The thought of seeing their smiling faces and hearing them cheer moved me forward.

Stein Butte to Squaw Lakes (~mile 39 and 42):

As I began my descent toward Squaw Lakes, I quickly noticed that I was starting to get a blister on my left foot, one so bad that I was barely able to run the downs within a few miles. Blister aside, I still managed to reach the lake a full 30 minutes faster than I had in 2012. I was ecstatic. I gave my pack to my crew, exchanging it for a handheld, and told them what I would need (including blister care) after making the trip around the lake. 

Because I arrived earlier this year than I had in 2012, I was not pushed to get around the lake to make a cutoff. Instead, I was able to run an easy pace and enjoy the beautiful trail. It felt like any other easy weekend run. 

Running in to Hanley Gap. Me: "Uh...you guys...it's still daylight" (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Running in to Hanley Gap. Me: "Uh...you guys...it's still daylight" (photo by Sarah Duncan).

I reached the other side of the lake and briefly sat dan while Megan fed me and Marta and Sarah tended to my feet. As I ate, I confirmed I wasn't going to miss a cutoff (the thought still lingered and I couldn't believe I felt that strong while not pushing it). "Des, you are nowhere near missing a cutoff," Sarah said.

Once they finished addressing my feet, I picked up my pack and my headlamps, prepared for the night to come. I would get to see my crew again at Hanley Gap, but I was confident it would be dark before I arrived. As I made my way from the lake to the trail, my crew drove by cheering. Their positivity permeated the smoke-filled air. 

Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap (mile 50 and 52):

The climb to Hanley Gap was uneventful and, like the previous two climbs, was not nearly as bad as I remembered it. I made it there much faster than I anticipated, over two hours earlier than I had in 2012.

I handed off my pack to my crew and began my accent to the top of Hanley Gap to retrieve my flag, amazed that I was going to get to do this in the daylight, and it was an added bonus to see the fire-burnt sunset as I reached the top.

At the summit of Hanley Gap (photo by Tom Riley).

At the summit of Hanley Gap (photo by Tom Riley).

I retrieved my flag and I quickly made my descent, arriving at the aid station 30 minutes faster than I had told my crew I would.

Knowing that I've suffered hypothermia at two separate 100-mile races, my crew and I were aware that we would need to be vigilant about keeping me warm and dry during the night. With that in mind, they had me change shirts when I reached the aid station.

Although I had been eating well and regularly all day, prolonged running in the smoke made my stomach tight and queazy, and I started to lose my appetite. Still, I refueled and readied myself to head out into the evening.  

Hanley Gap to Dutchman Peak (mile 65 and 67):

The stretch from Hanley Gap to the base of Dutchman Peak was very hard for me in 2012.  I was tired, my knees were shot, I was depleted, and I was terrified of the dark. This year, I felt like I cruised there, making conversation with runners as we crossed paths and enjoying the peace of the night when I was alone. 

The best case scenario arrival time prediction I gave my crew for mile 65 was 11:30 p.m. To their surprise and mine, I arrived at around 11:20 p.m., elated that I had not only made it to my first pacer (Megan), but that I was going to make the cutoff that I had missed in 2012. Not only was I going to make the cutoff; I was going to get there a full two hours earlier than I had in 2012. I looked at Megan: "Are you ready to summit this bitch?" I asked. "Let's do it!" she said.

At Hanley Gap, as my stomach started to churn (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Hanley Gap, as my stomach started to churn (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As Megan and I ascended Dutchman Peak, she motioned to the right: "Those are the lights of Ashland, Des," she said as she put her arm around me. I started to cry tears of pure happiness. I had made it. Now my race could start.

At Jackson Creek Gap (mile 69), getting ready to head back out (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

At Jackson Creek Gap (mile 69), getting ready to head back out (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

We stayed at the top of Dutchman Peak just long enough to check in and refuel before we descended back to regroup with Marta and Sarah. The three of them helped me put on a layer of warm clothes and fed me warm mashed potatoes and broth. 

Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle (~mile 75):

Megan and I headed out for our 10-mile stretch together. I was so thankful to finally have a pacer to keep me company on a stretch of trail that would be entirely new to me, and I couldn't have been happier to have Megan with her positive attitude and motivational words.

Within about two miles of leaving the rest of the crew, I felt overwhelmingly nauseous. I had stomached food and Gu so well all day and had taken the usual Tums and Ginger to combat the queasiness I experienced from running in the smoke, so I was surprised to feel so sick. As hard as I tried, though, I couldn't keep going. I hunched over on the side of the trail and started to vomit. Megan put her hand under my pack and lifted its weight, trying to shoulder some of my discomfort. 

Once the vomiting subsided, we moved forward, but I was so nauseous and my muscles had seized up so much when I stopped to vomit that I wasn't able to run. It was everything I could do just to hike. Megan knew I was on a schedule to eat every 30-45 minutes, so she tried to get me to eat, but everything I tasted made by stomach churn. We resorted to me swallowing what was probably a quarter teaspoon of Gu every 20 minutes or so. It was all I could handle. Megan continued to encourage me, reminding me that every step was one closer to Ashland. 

At around 4:00 a.m., we finally reached the Long John Saddle aid station, where I would meet Marta and continue on for the remainder of the night. Since I had slowed down so significantly, I told Megan I wasn't going to stop at the aid station; I would keep going and she would send Marta out after me. When we reached the aid station, Megan stopped to check in with Marta and Sarah walked me out. I looked at Sarah and I started to cry: "I've slowed down too much," I said. "I'm going to get cut. I'm going to miss a cutoff." Sarah put her arm around me: "Des, you've made all of the cutoffs. You're so far ahead. No one is going to cut you." I wanted to believe her, but I didn't. I was so burdened by the memory of being cut in 2012 that I couldn't move beyond those feelings. 

Marta and Megan caught up with us on the other side of the aid station. Marta put her hands on my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes as she started to tear up: "Desiree, you are going to make it. You are not going to get cut." Little did she know how many more times she would have to say those words to me before the night was over. 

Long John Saddle to Wagner Butte (mile 80 and 85):

The two or so remaining hours of night between when we left Sarah and Megan and when we reached the Wagner Butte aid station were long and slow. My stomach continued to get more nauseous and I was barely able to eat anything, despite Marta's efforts. I hunched over several times on the side of the trail to dry heave and my breathing was increasingly labored. It was everything I could do to even stomach water. 

Retrieving my flag from the summit of Wagner Butte, mile 85 (photo by Marta Fisher).

Retrieving my flag from the summit of Wagner Butte, mile 85 (photo by Marta Fisher).

At some point, Marta asked a fellow pacer if he had vanilla Gu, the one flavor we found that I was still able to stomach. He didn't have any Gu, but he offered us chia seeds, which he had given to his runner when she started to get sick. "They'll help absorb the lactic acid in your stomach," he said. So I ate chia seeds and I drank water, periodically taking a small taste of Gu. That was my fuel for the remainder of the race.

We reached the Wagner Butte aid station just before dawn, where we unloaded excess clothing and fuel into our drop bags before making the final five-mile climb to summit Wagner Butte. 

After retrieving my flag and descending the boulder field, I started to cry again, no doubt because I was, at this point, too calorie-depleted to control my emotions. Calorie-depletion aside, though, the weight of my 2012 DNF started to become more than I could shoulder. "I'm not to going to make it," I said. "I've come so far and I'm not going to make it." Marta put her hands on my shoulders again. She looked at me and started to cry: "Des, you are going to make it. You have so much time." I didn't believe her. 

Wagner Butte to the finish (mile 100.5):

Marta and I moved forward as fast as my feet and legs would carry me, but by mile 85 or so, my blisters had gotten so bad that even a shuffle was painful. Normally downhill running is my strength, but the blisters made it so painful I could barely move. 

By the time we reached mile 95 or so, we could see Ashland in the distance and even heard the occasional road noise. It was so close and still so very far away. I had a pretty strong shuffle going, though, and I was determined to finish: "I just have to get to Ashland," I kept saying. "I just have to get to Ashland.

A two-year journey finally ends. 

A two-year journey finally ends. 

When we were about a mile from the finish line, where the trail meets the pavement of Ashland, we saw Sarah and Megan. I had never been so happy to see pavement. Sarah and Megan put their arms around me: "Let's finish this!" they said. "I'm not going to make it. They're going to cut me," I said. "Des," Sarah said, "you're going to make it. You're here." I didn't believe her. I had slowed down too much. I was in too much pain. Breathing hurt. It couldn't be possible that I was actually there. "I have been to hell and back," I said. "But you made it," Sarah replied. She stayed by my side for the remaining mile, telling me every turn that lie ahead. "See those cars? That's the finish line." I cried and, this time, I didn't stop. Somehow I found one last push of strength deep inside my body and I ran as hard and as fast as I could. As I crossed the finish line, Sarah, Megan, and Marta wrapped their arms around me and led me to a chair. "You did it!" Sarah said. "No," I said. "We did it."

Finish time: 33:01:09. Chapter closed. 

Finish time: 33:01:09. Chapter closed. 

A Disappointing Accomplishment

"Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic." - Tim Noakes

It is no secret that this year has been a particularly challenging one for me, both physically and mentally. Beginning on the first of January, I started to experience inexplicable nerve dysfunction that led to a litany of injuries that, themselves, took considerable rehab to overcome. As I continue to see specialists and to rehab over eight months later, I find that each day, each run, each race is a test of my ability and my will. My issues at the beginning of the year forced me to reevaluate my race goals and to shift my focus. I pulled out of all of my spring races with the hope of focusing my training on two very challenging events instead: Waldo 100k and Pine to Palm 100M. 

I awoke in excruciating pain repeatedly last Thursday night. I recognized the discomfort right away and called my doctor at the earliest opportunity the next morning: "I have a UTI," I said. "I'm leaving town in a couple of hours and I need to get antibiotics as soon as possible." After a frantic morning, which included a trip to the doctor and several trips to the pharmacy, I was finally on my way to Willamette Pass to toe the start line of the Waldo 100k for the third time. I could only hope that I had enough time to pump my body full of antibiotics, supplements, and water to offset the effects of the UTI and still have a functional race.

I was vocal about my goal leading into Waldo this year: I not only wanted to beat my 14:36 PR from last year; I wanted to break 14 hours. It was an ambitious goal (I'm not one to set any other kind) but, given my training, it was feasible. On Friday night, as I set my clothes out for the following morning, I told my friend Sarah D: "You know what really worries me? For the first time, I'm not nervous." "Maybe that's what happens eventually," she said. I slept peacefully for the next six hours until I awoke at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, my first time rising for the regular 5:00 a.m. start time. 

Start to Gold Lake (7.4 miles):

I ran the first section of the course more consistently and quicker than I did last year. As I approached the Gold Lake aid station, I was surprised by how great I felt. I stopped to take off my headlamps and refuel. As I reached for some food, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. I tried to eat some pretzels, but almost vomited in the process. "Antibiotics," I thought. "Keep moving."

Gold Lake to Mt. Fuji (12.4 miles): 

I began the next section knowing that I had a climb ahead of me to help me recover. After several minutes, I was able to stomach a little fuel, but I knew it wasn't enough. I ate some ginger, hoping it would settle my stomach. As I began the climb, I saw several friends descending. Their smiles and encouragement did more for me than any ginger ever could. "Keep moving," I told myself.

Mt. Fuji to Mt. Ray (20.5 miles):

As I traversed over to Mt. Ray, I tried to fuel a little more, but I was too nauseous. I told myself I'd have to eat at Mt. Ray regardless of how I felt. Too much time had elapsed since I'd last eaten and I was falling too far behind in my intake. I would never finish if I didn't take in more calories. Even if I couldn't hold anything down, I still needed to stop and try to eat.

Shortly after leaving Mt. Fuji, I felt a sharp pain in my right achilles tendon, so sharp and painful I almost screamed. I stopped running to see what the issue was. I saw a bright red/white circle on my ankle and noticed it had started to swell. I knew right away I'd been stun by a bee. I tried to move as quickly as I could and ignore it, but the pain was severe and I had trouble moving my foot and ankle. 

When I arrived at Mt. Ray, I was greeted by my friend Betsy, who asked how I was. I told her I had been nauseous for several hours and that I'd been stun in my achilles tendon by a bee. Another volunteer overheard and said that they had already seen several runners come in with bee stings. She was prepared to take care of it. As she checked for a stinger and treated the sting, I stood still and tried to hold down some fluids and fuel. My stop at Mt. Ray was one of my longer aid station stops, but probably the most necessary one. When I left, the pain in my achilles had diminished significantly thanks to the magical ointment the volunteer applied, and I had consumed enough calories to keep moving. 

Mt. Ray to the Twins (27.1 miles):

During the next severe miles, my nausea returned and was twice as bad as it had been. To make things worse, my need to pee became more and more frequent and the pain I experienced each time became more and more severe. I reached a point where I had to walk for several minutes every time I had to stop to pee because the pain had gotten so bad. This, I knew, was nothing I could resolve. "Keep moving," I told myself. All I could do was try to drink as much as possible and hope it would subside. It didn't. 

The Twins to Charlton Lake (32 miles):

As I made my way to Charlton Lake, I was in pain, but I felt excited. Somehow, I was still right on pace with where I expected to be and I knew I would get to see Sarah, who was volunteering, at the aid station. When I reached the aid station, I was greeted by so many encouraging faces and supportive words. "You're right on pace," Sarah said. "How do you feel?" "It burns to pee, I've been sick to my stomach for hours, I can't get the swelling in my hands down, and I was stun in my achilles tendon." "You're just going to have to suck it up and get through this," she said. I knew she was right. As I prepared to leave, the aid station captain, Dennis, encouraged me, walking me through the next section. I was ready to keep moving.

Charlton Lake to Road 4290 (37.2 miles):

As I made my way to Road 4290, my nausea started to subside and I was able to start stomaching gels. It wasn't much, but it was something. Little did I know, gels would be all I would be able to stomach for the remainder of the race.

Road 4290 is, for me, where the race begins. The heat and the more difficult of the climbs await runners after this aid station. The first 37 miles are a warm-up. As I approached the aid station, I told myself: "Okay, now your race has started. Move."

Road 4290 to The Twins #2 (44.7 miles):

The temperature at Waldo usually feels pretty mild. Most of the course (with the exception of a few miles surrounding Road 4290) is covered and altitude takes care of the rest. The temperature change seemed more significant to me this year, however, since I opted for the regular start and hit Road 4290 two hours later than in previous years. The antibiotics I was taking also had a side effect of increasing sensitivity to heat and the sun. I slowed down quite a bit in this section and during the climb up the second of the twins.

The Twins #2 to Maiden Peak (49.9 miles):

While the climb up the second of the Twins is long and sustained, there awaits a nice descent and runnable traverse to Maiden Peak. Despite continued abdominal pain and nausea, I was able to run this entire section and run it at a fairly good pace. 

As I approached the Maiden Peak aid station at the base of the final climb, I knew that my sub-14 goal was no longer feasible. I thought, however, that I might possibly be able to meet my finish time from last year. I wasn't sure, but I thought I was running roughly the same pace as I had the previous year. As it turns out, I reached that aid station in the exact same amount of time, to the minute, as I had in 2013. 

Maiden Peak to Finish (62.5 miles):

The climb up Maiden Peak felt more difficult this year than it had in 2013. A day of running on empty and fighting infection had weakened me. My legs felt fine. My lungs felt fine. My feet felt fine. My stomach and my bladder, however, did not feel fine. Still, I pushed and I pushed hard, surprised that I was able to hike so quickly. 

As I reached the summit, I saw my friends Bret and Gail, who had surprised me at around the same place the previous year. Bret yelled my name: "Desiree!" and put his arm around me. As soon as I saw him, I broke down. I had worked so hard to stay positive and to fight all day but, at that moment, I couldn't fight anymore. "I suck so much Bret," I said. "I tried so hard." "Every race is different, Des. They can't all be PRs," he said. I pushed harder, trying to finish the climb as quickly as possible. Gail joined me as I made my summit. At the summit, I saw Scott, volunteering in the same place he had the previous year. "How do you feel, Desiree?" "I'm having a rough day," I said. "It's not too late to turn it around," he said. I quickly began my descent, Scott's words still echoing in my head. I passed Bret and Gail, hugging them both on my way down, thankful that they were there when I needed them most. 

The descent down Leap of Faith took longer than it did the previous year. My knees started to ache and it took a while for them to loosen up. Once they did, though, there was no stopping. I ran and hiked as quickly as I could, repeating in my head "You need to suck it up and get through this" and "It's not too late to turn it around." I ran and I ran and I ran. I knew I would no longer meet my finish time from 2013. I let go of that hope and resigned myself to a 15:30 finish time. I knew I could comfortably make that. Then, I remembered the words of a friend that got me through the last section of this course last year, and I decided to see how much pain I could take. I pushed as hard as I could, determined to break 15 hours. I crossed the finish line in 14:54:29, 18 minutes slower than the previous year. 

Since finishing, I've felt conflicted. I'm simultaneously incredibly disappointed and proud. I'm disappointed because I know I could have done better, because I know I trained to do better. I'm proud because I know that I left everything I had on that race course and gave it everything I had every moment of the day. As I look back, I cannot think of one moment that I could have tried harder or moved faster or done something differently that would have changed my day. And, with the exception of my breakdown when I saw Bret and Gail, I ran the entire day with a smile on my face, ever grateful to be able to run. 

From the Brink of Collapse: Relentless Forward Motion

"Des! You're running!" said a friend as we crossed paths yesterday afternoon. "Sort of," I said. "No," she said. "Not 'sort of.' You're running."  

The last three and a half months have been emotional and scary. The year started with me experiencing what we now think was (and still may be) peroneal nerve entrapment, which led to foot drop, which led to severe tendonitis and soft tissue damage, and, later, resulted in a torn meniscus. For months I have been in constant pain with every step. For weeks I was not able to walk around my office let alone run. Getting up to refill my water bottle became a luxury. Once I tore my meniscus, I had to resign myself to the reality that there was nothing I could do, quite literally. For the first time, I could not even crosstrain for fear that doing so in any capacity would exacerbate my injuries and necessitate surgery. No, I would not even be able to maintain my fitness (no core work, no stairclimber, no bike, no elliptical, no walking, and no pool); all I could do was accept that I had to let it go. I pulled out of my spring races. As I traded my work heels for shoes that provided maximum stability, as I dragged my leg behind me, it was everything I could do to not cry out in jealously as I saw people who had the luxury of simply walking without pain. 

After several weeks of inactivity, I was finally able to wear flat dress shoes to work. It was a small victory, but this semblance of normalcy gave me hope. After a bit longer, I was able to use the elliptical and resume core work. I was still not allowed to train, but I could move my body again.

Finally, with the approval of a physical therapist, I tried jogging one day during lunch. As I laced my running shoes, my stomach filled with knots; not the knots of excitement, but balls of dread, sadness, and fear. For the first time, I was terrified to run. Given the precarious state in which the nerve entrapment had left my body, I feared that a single step might result in another injury, even more severe than the last. It didn't. I jogged half a mile. I was in pain, but I did it. I have never felt so defeated and so accomplished at the same time. A half a mile. 

Slowly, I built upon that half mile, jogging every few days, a half mile here and a half mile there. Eventually, I jogged two miles and then three and then five. Every step was slow and painful, but every step was one closer to turning the proverbial corner. Soon, I was able to run with Sarah D. “Running,” of course, for me, was not running by any stretch of the imagination; it was more like controlled hobbling. But Sarah, ever my rock, patiently slowed her pace, uttering words of encouragement when she could tell that my physical and emotional strength dwindled: "You know the first few runs are going to be the hardest, right? It's going to get easier," she said. Oh, Sarah, if you only knew the number of times I've repeated your words to myself over the last few weeks.

It’s now been three and a half months since all of this began. I’ve had my share of injuries, both minor and significant, but this has, without a doubt, been the scariest and has lasted the longest, and it's not over. I have seen doctors, an athletic trainer, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, and an acupuncturist. I have had my knees and hips contorted and my stability checked. I have had X-RAYS, ultrasounds, cupping, and Graston. I've been taped, stretched, and poked with needles. On mornings when I saw no point in getting up because I couldn't do what I love, I hobbled out of bed and did my physical therapy exercises. Every. Single. Day.  In the last few months I have learned that sometimes relentless forward motion, that will to go on that we draw upon during our darkest hours of races, is often needed to simply get out of bed. I have learned that we are not only what we have done, but are also what we have overcome. Every day I resolve to overcome pain and every day I get a little closer to turning the corner. So, am I running again? I am prepared now to say yes. I'm not as strong or as fast as I once was and I'm still in pain, but I'm moving forward. Relentlessly. 

Waiting is the Hardest Part

"Walk carefully, do your exercises, and be kind to yourself," said the athletic trainer as I left my appointment this morning. "It's the 'be kind to yourself' part that's the hardest," I said as I hobbled away.

To say that the last four and a half months have been a struggle for me would be an understatement. In September of last year, I suffered hypothermia at a race, which led to hypothermia-induced pneumonia and, later, prolonged bronchitis. After that, I started to experience inexplicable nerve issues and foot drop on my right side, which led to pain in my toe extensors and, eventually, a severe case of tendonitis that has prevented me from running for several weeks. Just when I thought I would be able to start running again, I experienced yet another setback. As I stood up yesterday, the right side of my body locked just as I turned away from my desk. I felt a pop in my knee and then immediate pain. Increased pain and inflammation led me to see an athletic trainer today, who diagnosed a tear in my meniscus. No, I would not be able to start running again soon. 

As endurance athletes, we train ourselves to be inured, to accept pain and frustration (both mental and physical) and to move forward.  We tell ourselves that we just need to work harder, to get more sleep, to fuel more effectively, to focus more on strength/speed/stability/flexibility (whatever the weakness at the moment might be) and we'll get through whatever the issue is. We just need to work harder. We do not remind ourselves to be kind to our bodies, especially when they do not perform the way we expect them to.

Today, the athletic trainer and I focused on retraining my body to walk; quite literally how to put one foot straight in front of the other and move my toes in the correct way. When I left my appointment, I broke down. The four-plus months of anger and frustration and sadness welled in my eyes and I broke down. I couldn't even walk. I couldn't even move my toes or my leg in a way that felt stable and didn't cause me pain. The possible long-term effects of a nerve issue terrified me, and I felt my 2014 race goals slipping away. All I wanted to do was run, to find the highest point of a beautiful, secluded mountain and sit there. Instead, I sat in my car and cried as my knee throbbed in pain, all the while wondering why my body couldn't just heal. No, I was not kind to myself. 

Several hours later, I have a little more perspective. Sometimes the answer is to work on strength/speed/stability/flexibility and sometimes there's nothing you can do except wait. Waiting, inaction, the complete absence of control, is always the most difficult part for me. But, as I sit here waiting for my body to heal, I tell myself that sometimes you have to fight for a finish line and sometimes you have to fight for a start line, and tomorrow I vow to be a little kinder to myself. 

Better Days Ahead

"The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry." -- Robert Burns

While I excitedly planned my 2014 race schedule and travel plans, the effects of a hard-fought end to 2013, as well as some career and life changes, took their toll. Just as I started to begin my winter training for my spring races, I came down with a prolonged bout of bronchitis. As I started to recover and regain strength, I suffered a severe and extremely painful occurrence of tendonitis. While both health issues have slowed my training and diminished my strength, speed, and energy, I am finally on the path to recovery (I hope) and am looking forward to a fabulous year of exploring new trails and experiencing new landscapes that take my breath away, both physically and aesthetically. I am also excited to be part of the 2014 team of Nuun Ambassadors. It's going to be a great year! http://www.nuun.com/ambassador-program/desiree-marek  

2014 RACE SCHEDULE:

  • February 15 - Hagg Lake 50k
  • February 16 - Hagg Lake 25k
  • April 4-5 - Zion 100m
  • May 10 - McDonald Forest 50k
  • June 14 - Smith Rock Ascent 50k
  • July 26 - White River 50m
  • September 13-14 - Pine to Palm 100m